Thomas Jonathan Burtnett is a freelance writer that has recently, as of 2016 has been branching out and trying to publish more of his work. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 21 years of age, and was born in February in 1995. He likes writing based on real life issues while also adding in some sci-fi, supernatural elements and does enjoy writing in other genres as well. He attends Full Sail University for the creative writing program and intends on finishing his degree and going further with his writing degree. He intends on publishing a book he has been working on for years and will hopefully publish it sometime in the coming year.
I just met my daughter for the first time about a week ago and now she is coming to stay the night with me in my apartment. There was a bit of awkwardness we have been fighting through, but things were looking pretty happy. My daughter’s name is Aribella and she is about 9 years old with a cute, warm smile and positive, bubbly attitude.
We are riding the elevator up to the 23rd floor of my apartment building and I notice she is highly afraid to let go of the railing on the inside of the elevator cart. She fidgets with her hand against the railing and as we talk I reach my hand out for a high five she smiles and gives a genuine, warming laugh, but quickly grabs the rail again. I give her hand a high five a few more times and I see it makes her smile and forget about the elevator and the rail for a bit, but I stop and smile at how adorable and how much it is great to have met my daughter and spend time with her.
I knew she was excited and so was I with the games I had in my arms, hugging them while I held my paper and mail in one of my hands. We had made quite a bit of progress and were only a few more floors from my level and we would be getting off. I was talking to Aribella about school, and how excited she was to play some games with me and she was very excited and really liked math in school, she said smiling up at me.
As I looked down and smiled beamingly at her, we reached my level and got off the elevator.
With a passion for storytelling spawning before he even could write, Pete Cotsalas, a Massachusetts native, does not feel accomplished unless he has written daily. Fiction is his passion. With a BA in English/Creative Writing he hopes to milk all the use possible out of this basic credential, and dreams of the world reading and enjoying his work. He is an avid reader and researcher in his spare time. To inspire himself, he often contemplates “If it exists, I can write about it.”
Heart of a Stone
Continuation of Nymph Goddess’s Garderobe
Opening the bloodstained sack, Froman saw in amazement that the stolen heart beat. Without a body to generate, it palpated. Valves flexed. Blue veins pulsed. His fingers felt the rise and fall of the organ’s exterior. “Why does it beat?”
“The heart is close to the nectar,” said Faraoise. She indicated the liquid essence in the Knothole. “It makes the lifeless, viable. Move it away, it shall stop.”
Indeed, the dead organ ceased its function, when Froman stepped back a number of paces. This heart was activated by the purest of nature. Sneering, Froman basked in this evidence that the heart was indeed natural. “Ooh, I wish that Golem were in here to see this.”
With a sigh, Faraoise mused “Pride and arrogance. That is more hominid nonsense.”
Sneering with yellow teeth, Froman retorted “A natural element it must be. I exercise it freely in your domain.”
“Instinct is natural.” Growing weary of the conversation, Faraoise moved toward the exit. “If you still insist upon showing your company the realm of death, I shall guide you. You have had your say. I expressed my position. I will not have to open a vortex for you this time. You will be able to cross yourself. I will tell you where to do so of your own accord, if still you insist.”
“But I cannot muster that type of power. Only you can. No spell available to worldly sorcerers can open the veil.”
“That used to be. A shift has commenced in fundament. There has been a breech, leakage in the veil. I know not why, or what has caused it. I sense it however. For the last moon cycle, I have pinpointed abnormality across the span of my creation: souls reappearing that have been long departed, more ghosts than normal. I detect it as a mother hominid detects illness in her child. I can show you where the most vulnerable area is to cross.”
Froman was puzzled. “Such a breech must inspire concern. Perhaps it has something to do with the answers they seek.”
“Yes, I believe so. Take time. I ask you to contemplate on this exchange, while I speak to Chliste.”
Wood creaked, and sunlight greeted them, as the roots parted. They ascended the passageway out of Faraoise’s domain. Chliste stood with his back turned, in the clearing before the Life Tree. With a wave of her hand, Faraoise sealed the roots over her doorway. She nodded to Chliste, like an apothecarian admitting their next appointment. “If you wish to converse with me Chliste, I am through with Froman.”
Chliste turned emotionless eyes on Froman. “Do not think me excluding you. I need a moment to consult Faraoise. And I would prefer it to be in privacy.
Hesitantly, Froman approached the trees. “I will wait by the creek until Ivanna and Myria are returned.” He nodded to Faraoise, and glared at Chliste. “I dislike rocks, when I stub my toe on them,” he growled. “But I prefer those, now that I see what happens when they are man-sized, with huge superiority complex, and pretentious white robes.”
“Froman, please,” said Faraoise, closing her eyes, and raising her hand. “Give us a moment!” She waited to address the Golem until Froman’s footfalls became faint. “Chliste, I overheard what you said about heart. I dared not divulge my feelings to Froman, but I believe your lack of understanding influences your disdain. Emboldening of a heart is lost on you. I do not intend belittlement. However, you should not argue without experience or reference.”
“This only illuminates my thesis.” Chliste said, robes dragging across the grass, as he strode, keeping eye contact with Faraoise all the while. “Your heart interjects causing you to say that. You are in error, Faraoise. Heart does not enlighten you living creatures, it taxes you. You are blinded to this, because you are the heart’s creator.”
Faraoise’s mouth fell agape in shock and the brightness of her eyes flickered like a lantern in the rain. “I did not think it possible. I have witnessed an uncanny reproduction of The Knower of All speaking wrongfully… The heart is essential. I should know, and I do. Heart and love, and every emotion are natural!”
“It is natural instinct for some animals to eat feces. Natural hardly proves necessity.” Chliste stared at her. “Did you manufacture your own heart, Faraoise?” he asked slowly.
She nodded. “I did, as a matter of fact.” She looked at her reflection in the puddle nearby. “This very form which I take, and all which comprises it, are of my own development. The only reason I appear the same way as a thousand years before, and not as a decrepit old crone, is I could not allow age to weaken myself. Therefore, I did not instill it within me. I experimented with it with the rest of my flesh creations. I suppose next you will accuse my heart of causing vanity. Vanity and positive reflection differ. Before I conceived life, I knew that positive energy would be essential. This continent was a barren wasteland of nothingness, somehow negativity could still be sensed all around. I initiated animals, and creatures, providing them with capability and instinct, to love and be compassionate. Positive charge validated the entire being of my Fathach. That is why every creature in my creation, whether it beats under the softest flesh, or most impregnable exoskeleton, is better for having a heart. Chliste, you are mistaken.”
Chliste sighed and folded his arms. “I had such high hopes,” he turned to face the opposite side of the clearing. “I expected that the powerful creator of the natural would be more attentive to the epitome of intellect.”
“You dare speak to me that way?” Faraoise snapped, in awe. “You mock I, who breathed air into all that flourishes, now, past, and future? It was I who oversaw the blood lineage which comprised The Knower of All himself, who in turn gave you life, Chliste. You have only me to thank for your vast intellect.” Whipping her hair behind her dismissively she sighed “Indubitably there is no agreement reachable here. Neither one of us will convince the other. This argument is futile.”
Evidently, Chliste did not wish to acknowledge the futility yet. He turned to face her. “It was also you who provided for the formulation of the warlock scum which enslaved all that which you created,” he retorted. He watched Faraoise’s pointed ears twitch with irritation. He pointed at her. “We have only you to thank for that. Warlocks were able to take over because your heart ensured that you were so indulged in all of your love and passion for your conceptions that you were blind to the parasitic oppressors, until it was too late. Is your refusal to admit wrong denial, or penance? Seemingly, Froman misaimed his comment regarding superiority complexes.”
With responsive force, Faraoise thrust her fist against Chliste’s chest. Fingernails buried into his hand-crafted flesh, once sediment. There was a bursting flash of red light. Chliste grunted, and fell backward onto the ground. Seeing him clutch at his chest, Faraoise knew he was feeling a tingling sensation. “What is this?!” he demanded of Faraoise, leaping to his feet. “What have you done to me?”
Faraoise shrugged, nonchalantly turning her back. “I merely saw necessity to prove my claim. You shall experience the validity of emotion firsthand, Chliste.”
“You… do you mean you have given me a heart?!” Chliste bellowed, grasping at his chest, as if a parasite was within him.
Faraoise nodded. “Yes, indeed, it was not difficult. Not to offend, but you are basically raw material held together by a spell. It was similar to filling a knothole in a tree.”
“Remove it, I beg of you!” Chliste shouted. He tore open his robes revealing his bare chest. “I cannot operate without flaw while it beats!” Walking bowlegged toward Faraoise, he thrust his chest outward, grasping his shredded toggery in both hands. “Its presence writhes through me, I feel it. Please, expel it before it obstructs my judgment!”
Knowing it useless, she did not attempt to explain to Chliste that flawlessness did not exist. Her arms folded in silent refusal Faraoise said. “There is nothing to be removed. You misunderstand me. I did not insert a beating red organ into your chest. I gave you heart, in a sense, more concentrated spiritually. All I did was give your soul further empowerment.”
“I have no soul either,” Chliste said, his fear now replaced with curiosity. “No golems exist in the Death Realm. Therefore, they have no souls which can migrate there.”
Sighing Faraoise watched him quiver. “I console your ignorance Chliste, and hope the gift I bestowed helps it. Everything on Fathach possess some life-force.” She touched his cheek tenderly. “This includes stones… As these spiritual attachments appear in the realm of death, or other varying lights, is dependent on how the soul was utilized. Here is one of the lessons you must learn, while carrying this “burden” as you say. You seem to not comprehend this. Many do not. Slim difference exists between a soul and heart. The defining instance is that a heart physically beats dispensing blood. A soul thrives, contributing warmth and validity.” With a graceful gesture of her shining hand, she indicated the stream passing around the Wandering Field. “A heart is the geographic river system, and the soul the water. I merely rectified drought within you. This may be difficult to fathom until you experience the effects.”
Chliste staggered a few steps, before collapsing to his knees, as if trapped in an imploding chamber. He looked around with his mouth agape, appearing overwhelmed at the simple vegetation and atmosphere of the Wandering Field. Not a single leaf or blade of grass changed since he entered. Soft wind ruffled branches. He touched his cheek. “The air, it never felt so cool. It relaxes.” In awe, he gazed at a cup-shaped pink flower growing on a nearby bush. Reaching and touching it, he said “The colors, I have never seen them so prominent, alluring. I cannot look away.” In the distance, a loud Hercinia in a tree chirped several times. Chliste’s neck stiffened and he cupped his palm around his ear. “And the noise that songbird makes, it is harmonious, peaceful like the Hercinia itself. I must have heard that same birdcall thousands of times and ignored it.”
A glimmer of a smile crossed Faraoise, as she rested her hand on his shoulder. “You experience beauty, for the first time since your creation. I doubt if you knew that concept’s meaning until this day. You will adapt to it. Now, retrieve the Dlidean princess and handmaiden from whence you sent them. Otherwise Froman may be tempted to tear open your chest, and remove what I just have instilled there.”
Chliste pressed his hand to his forehead. Grunting, the blue flashes of his irises seeped through his closed eyelids. He struggled. “I cannot reach them. I feel them in the timeline, but cannot reach. Why can I not? Ooh, what was that?” His free hand grasped at his chest as his eyelids widened, dumbfounded. “Ugh, that damnable sensation,” he groaned, bending slightly in agony. “Upon my realizing I could not bring them, it struck me. What was it?!”
Shrugging, Faraoise crossed her arms. “Sorrow, remorse, sadness, fear, I could list dozens of further terms. They are all varying levels of heartache.”
Forcing himself upright, Chliste moaned, rubbing his chest. “It was painful, unpleasant. I did not… wait, that was it!” He pointed to his chest. “Was it not? That was the determent to reason I have observed all this time. That is the cause of which I spoke. I deduce it is also the reason my ability to retrieve the women has been impeded.”
Brushing dirt off his robes, Faraoise said “It is only a determent if you allow it to be. Coping is the preferred technique. As for your inability to recall Froman’s friends, it is likely there is some magical warding where they are. Go now. Adjust to your new appendage. I shall call Froman back. I will locate his company.”
Halfway across the clearing, Chliste fell to a sitting position on a rock. “I have never felt anything like this. My mind has never felt more active… or less sure.”
Had Faraoise not already begun her search through time for Ivanna and Myria, she would answer him. Sitting and crossing her legs on the grass, she sent her vibes backward, through centuries. She sifted through years, like a scholar through scrolls. After several minutes, she located the women. Something was awry. Echoing in her head, Ivanna’s voice screamed at Myria to run faster. Flashes of imagery in Faraoise’s mind showed dense woods, and hulking creatures in the distance. A snarling voice gave orders. “The time-travelers have gone this way. The Masters demand their audience. Catch them!” Faraoise gasped. Maintaining her hold on the on the time period, she recalled her sight and hearing from the moment. That male voice frightened her. All sinister unnatural beings not created by her took her aback, especially those as sinister as those pursuing Froman’s accomplices. “Rakshasa,” she whispered. “Minions of the Days to Forsake chase them.” She called toward the creek. “Froman, come! I have found your escorts. They are in danger.”
Galloping back to the clearing, Froman stood before her, his claws partially extended and bodily wolf hair thickening. “Where are they Faraoise? What is happening?”
“Abominable creations of the Warlocks pursue them through a forest.” Faraoise gazed at Chliste, seated on the rock. He was gripping at his chest again, listening to her intently. Her eyes narrowed, staring at Chliste. He felt the magical energy she unleashed overtaking him. “You and your burdensome gift will stand a test now,” she informed him. With a lurch of her neck, Chliste disappeared in a flash of blue and a crackling sound.
Staring at the rock where the Golem sat, bemused, Froman asked “Where has he gone.”
“I sent him to rectify his mess,” Faraoise said. “He will go back and retrieve the Princess and Handmaiden himself.”
“What did you mean his burdensome gift?” Froman inquired.
As she stood, recomposing herself after searching through the past, Faraoise patted Froman’s hairy hand. “All you need know is that the test Chliste embarks upon now, shall decide who is correct in our heart debate.”
A bushy eyebrow raised on Froman’s confused face. Lips pulled back over rotted teeth for inquisition. Before he could ask, the same crackle indicating Chliste’s departure rang through the clearing again. Both Froman and Faraoise looked around. They remained alone in the clearing. “Have… they returned?” Froman asked. A nonverbal answer presented itself. The same tone of blue hue reappeared, although not in the large flash as when Chliste departed. A small sliver of the blue light illuminated through the roots beneath the Tree of Life, from under the ground.
“Yes, they have returned,” Faraoise confirmed, looking at the base of her tree. “All three of them, I can sense their presence back in my domain. Somehow Chliste’s returning incantation teleported them into my garderobe.” She closed her eyes. “As I suspected, although mere seconds passed to us, Chliste was in the past liberating Ivanna and Myria for nearly three full hours.” Waving her hand in a wiping motion, the roots parted revealing the doorway. “Shall we assess their conditions?”
As she led the way into the passageway, smelling of soil and tree sap, Froman followed, inquisitively. “All three of them are in your lair? I thought Chliste would turn into rocks if he entered? You said that yourself.” Descending the tunnel, Faraoise gave no acknowledgement to the question. Echoing through the narrow passage came Froman’s next question from behind. “What happened to him, Faraoise? What happened while I was waiting beside the creek?” In silence, Faraoise led the way down to her lair. She dared not enable Froman’s arrogance further with a response.
To Be Continued
James Maxwell resides in Mount Vernon, NY of Westchester County. He makes a living working at an insurance brokerage but makes sure to have his writing completed before the break of dawn each day. His work has been previously featured in Scarlett Leaf Review in addition to the following publications: Walking Is Still Honest, Ijagun Poetry Journal, Cease, Cows, and Indiana Voice Journal.
“The Hand of God”
The time between the crickets chirping and birds singing stretched before him like a narrow isthmus, connecting two very profound and distinct things, and yet it was only the dark and the light that separated them—one giving way to the other as the world transitioned into another identity, one hand rising up to its mouth in a yawn while the other fell to sleep in its lap.
The old windows tended to rattle in the early morning hours as if the entire house were trying to shake itself awake like a soldier, ever faithful in his duties, stationed on the graveyard shift and guarding against some nameless terror lurking just beyond the feeble glow of the night lamps.
The glass would have to be replaced—maybe in the spring time. That’s when Mitchell could plant the hyacinths in the front yard, the lawn transformed into a royal quilt of fragrant purple combs come May.
From his bedroom he looked out into the vast backyard where from an old oak tree swung a child’s tire swing, employed now and again only by the sweeping breeze or sometimes a skin of snow, freezing the near perpetual pool of water collected inside the inner tubing, exerting the only weight the swing had sustained in some time.
He thought of all the many pairs of legs that had kicked joyfully bare through the empty space in the center, the indented grooves it left on the back of the thighs afterwards: the little half-moons a reminder of a passing summer’s hour. But perhaps that was the summation of life. He could count on his fingers how many people he knew that were just like that: a sturdy rind of an exterior and the center just a vacancy for others to slip fleetingly through and then disappear as the seasons shifted.
Summer was merely a dream now with Halloween just around the corner. Mitchell used to love this time of year, every blink of his sandy eyes focused and deliberate as if taking snapshots of all he saw to be developed later on and spread out across his mattress—keepsakes to savor after his idylls had ended.
But now fall felt exactly as it sounded, evoking the same sentiment he saw in the eyes of the old who would glance out upon days like this and mutter “Oh well,” before bumbling back off to bed. It had instilled in him a healthy fear of the dead and he contemplated the passage of time in terms of loss: the absence of footsteps echoing down the hallways, the somber sweep of dust kissed upon the shelves where curious trinkets collected throughout the years squatted like rusting relics in a used car parking lot—the whole structure a creaking monument to ambition utterly surrendered—not due to threat of violence but owing simply to the inextricable, unavoidable progression of time.
He could hear the windows on the other side of the house shiver violently now, but outside the wind held the swing in a single gentle lilt, bobbing in nudges at a slight angle. How different things seemed from the inside looking out. It was like experiencing the sound of a caged canary battering around its cage squawking, while witnessing simultaneously another spread its wings outside and take off freely into flight. Mitchell’s head pained with a disconnect and it seemed he could not reconcile the two in his mind.
But then something struck him. He could—yes, perhaps he very well could! The answer could be so very simple!
Mitchell skied down the flight of stairs and skidded across the kitchen, very nearly forgetting to put on his shoes on his way to the back door. He kicked on a pair of sneakers quickly, weighing his heel down upon the back lip as he did when rushing outside as a young boy.
“You’ll ruin that pair long before you’re due for another!” he imagined his mother’s voice shrieking loudly in his ear.
“Ah ma, lay off!” he shouted back as his feet bounded out with precarious jabs, cascading into the late afternoon upon freely flopping moccasins, unhinged against the loamy earth.
The back lawn yawned before him in the somnolence of a spiritless October. He dashed through the swamp of dead leaves saturated still with last night’s storm, squashing them underfoot like rancid tomatoes or heaps of soggy brown paper bags. As he raced, he attempted to outrun the swishing whispered from down below, his heart swept up in a fever of sound, but finding he could not, concentrated instead on the wind swatting playfully against his hot crimson cheeks as he careened through the universe, fearless again in the face of God.
Not nearly undone by the force of exertion upon his arrival, he snatched the thick cord blossoming upwards from the knot at the base and rang out a quick tug in spite of himself. The swing gave a bit more readily than he recalled and the branch high above bobbed like a fishing rod under stress from the catch, but the tree had stood always solid and strong and Mitchell took no issue with the signs of an aging oak.
He swung one leg through the hole and sat momentarily bowlegged as if straddling a horse before struggling to sink the opposite limb. The tree creaked and cracked under the burden of the added weight but Mitchell pumped forward with all his might.
And as he swung he heard the groans of the branch bowing heavily and he felt the wetness of the filthy inner water slap sloshing against his thighs like splashing through the puddles of youth, like a dream of immersion from which he wished he had never awoken. All around him sections of bark and tiny twigs flaked down like flecks of paint chips, the now feeble bough pleading against the man’s determination. However, he had already completely cemented himself in the knowledge that he was the arbiter of his own will.
Mitchell’s heart fluttered wildly now as he kicked himself free from the earth and back into the air like an ostrich turned dove, ignoring the sudden snap whiplashed from above.
With his back swatted flat against the soil and his wings pinned against his sides, he heard something he could only imagine as an ominous boom of thunder. He looked up smiling, reminded briefly of the sweetness of summer storms, to witness the great mighty fingered hand of God hovering above him like a halo. And as it plummeted down, it eclipsed all he could see but grew itself gradually in focus.
Mitchell closed his eyes and would not cry out, knowing full well that it had come finally to crown him.
Yasmeen Tajiddin grew up in El Paso, Texas and Kuwait but is currently living in Georgia. She is a student with a love of stories, whether she’s reading or writing them. Her nose can run faster than she ever will, but she's gifted with icy hands, meticulous planning skills, and speed reading. This is her first publication, but she hopes it is the first of many.
I stare down into the chasm. I’ve been preparing for this. I can do six push-ups in a row and I have my best sneakers on. Today is the day I hurdle over the foot and a half long storm drain that has tormented me for years. The hole is so deep it reaches the earth’s core. Thin streaks of smoke float up to my face. I recognize the smell of brimstone or what I think is the smell of brimstone according to Shrek.
After a couple of shallow breaths, I turn to my sister. She looks up at me, her eyes filled with fear and her face stained red. She is eating the cherry popsicle I have been saving for two and half days. I swallow my anger. This is no time for distractions. I give her a gentle, and possibly the last ever, hug as to not break her frail bones with my bulging four-and-a-half-year-old muscles.
While stepping towards the ledge, I feel a microscopic hand grab my bicep. It’s my sister. She begs me to reconsider but this is something I have to do. I rip my arm away from her and head back towards the ledge; reacquainting myself with the stench of brimstone.
With a backwards step and a wheeze, the official Olympic running position: knee to the face, fingertips grazing the ground, and a menacing squint. I assume I push off the dusty driveway. A cloud accumulates behind me and I hear my sister coughing in the distance. As my toes reach the brink, I jump. Air whips through my braids and ears. I pray to survive.
I land in a lunge with my right heel teetering over the edge; the perfect position for a victory punch. A breath of pride escapes me. I turn around and scream my success at my sister. She takes what is left of the popsicle out of her mouth to give a half-hearted, obviously jealous, smile. I respond with a hair flip and a sharp 180 degree turn and am met by my mother holding a camera, ready to document my best moment.
I bare my teeth and imitate a pose from a gangster movie I definitely should not have been watching.
I will never do anything as incredible as this.
Martin Chan is an international who is dedicated to expressing his emotions and thoughts through pens and paper. He loves American literature, though he's not a native American, and he has always regarded Phillips Andover as his dream school. Besides writing, he is an avid reader. He is currently working on his first novel, the first short-story collection, and the first poetry collection (hopefully self-published). He has always regarded himself as a stranger in the literature circle, though he has a lot of work published in different journals (online and print).
The lake was alive with lights — the lanterns on the boats, golden and round, like hundreds of miniature suns, and the moon, so heavy on the horizon that it was difficult to believe that it would be able to climb any higher in the sky. The foxes smiled debonairly as they steered the boats. They knew well how to mimic the behavior of aristocratic young men, though they couldn’t entirely refrain from an occasional impatient yip, while their doll companions tried to wear the same demure expressions they had so often seen on their mistresses’ faces.
How strange to find themselves on boats, the dolls thought. How strange to be separated from their devoted owners. One of them had been sleeping beneath a flowered coverlet when a fox leapt through the window and tore her from her protesting owner’s arms. Another had been lying in a lacy crib before astonishingly finding herself in a fox’s mouth. It was all quite shocking, though the dolls weren’t terribly upset. What young lady doesn’t want to be abducted by a gay troubadour? The thought of their forsaken little girls was sad, but nonetheless the dolls couldn’t help smiling furtively into their fans.
The Isle of Delights was in sight now, a black line in the glittering water. The foxes could barely contain their excitement, and the dolls tittered nervously. But wait, what was that along the shoreline? It almost looked as if there were broken dolls, thousands of them... One or two of the dolls screamed, but the foxes hastened to explain. You young ladies aren’t accustomed to being out on the water, always all kinds of strange debris, you’re seeing twigs and branches from the wind storm last week. The dolls tittered again, embarrassed by their ignorance, and the gallant foxes helped them ashore.
How glorious the night! It was the festival of the Mid-Autumn Moon, and the music of human celebrations drifted across the water, but even the humans weren’t enjoying a repast as splendid as the one prepared by the foxes. Embroidered quilts were spread out on grass dotted with chrysanthemums sagely nodding their yellow heads. The dolls seated themselves and modestly pulled their silk dresses around their ankles. What would the foxes do next? Tiny doll hearts fluttered like hummingbirds.
The foxes, with a flourish, spread a bolt of golden silk over the embroidered quilts. The picnic hampers were unpacked, and what wonders they contained. Melons and mooncakes. Tiny jade cups, exactly suited for a doll’s delicate hands, and wine as sweet as dew. Platters laden with red salted goose slices and pickled crabs. The dolls, accustomed to nothing more sumptuous than imaginary tea parties, were quite dazzled to be eating such splendid food, and perhaps they drank more wine than it was entirely wise for a doll to drink. The foxes watched them carefully, whiskers twitching. Every fox knows that the secret of immortality lies in devouring a doll’s heart essence, but opinions differ as to exactly what a doll’s heart essence might be. The foxes had concluded on this particular Mid-Autumn Moon that perhaps a doll’s heart essence was produced by feeding dolls pearls. After all, they had previously experimented with feeding dolls gold and feeding them orchids. Therefore, the platter they presented next was heaped with carp stuffed with nightingale wings and decorated with pearls arranged to represent a phoenix. The dolls exclaimed and applauded and daintily ate the carp, and the nightingale wings, and the pearls, every last one.
It was time. The foxes draped their front legs around the dolls’ shoulders. “Look at the silver toad in the moon,” they said. “Look at the Weaving Maid Star. At the Cowherd.” The dolls lifted their little heads to look at the night sky and the foxes, with great delicacy, tore out their throats. Had they succeeded this time? The foxes looked at each other, hoping to see some indications of immortality, though they were no more certain what immortality looked like than they were certain what a doll’s heart essence might be. But surely there should be some new luminosity in the air, an unaccustomed sparkle? They tore the dolls apart, searching desperately. They didn’t want to admit it, even to themselves, but this was ending like every other Mid-Autumn Moon night. Finally they climbed back in their boats and set off for shore, their lanterns long since doused. Even the human revels had ended, and the night was black and silent, the moon hiding behind a bank of thick cloud. A cold drizzle made the foxes shiver, and when they reached land they ran to their dens and curled up to shut out the freezing night, their tails over their eyes.
Winter arrived, and soon the Isle of Delights was muffled under heavy snow. The only movement was from the coiled dead leaves that still stubbornly rattled amid black branches. The dolls thought longingly of home and the little girls who had loved them, though they knew all that was past and gone. Their silk dresses, red as blood, blue as spring, lay in frozen heaps under the bare trees. By the time the snow melted the dresses were the same color as the surrounding mud. With the arrival of spring a creeping fungus turned the dolls’ bright brown eyes to dull green. Arms and legs split open under the blazing summer sun.
But now it’s once again glorious autumn. The night air is full of the sound of drums. The foxes are in their fairy boats, red coats gleaming in the light of lanterns. They reach the Isle of Delights, and their passengers cry out in fear when they see dolls dismembered and scattered about, but they are easily reassured. Soon a joyous party is underway. And why not celebrate? Perhaps this is the moon that will confer immortality. Perhaps this moon will bring each tender longing heart true love. Perhaps this is the Mid-Autumn Moon we have all been waiting for.
After years of typing out short stories both published and unpublishable, Morad Moazami is still terrified of devoting himself full-time to his zeal for writing fiction. Instead, he continues to dally in the dull world of academia, hoping (though it is a very disingenuous hope) that his knack for making people and places up might somehow soon be supplanted by the scholastic tradition of writing about real people and places so niche that they might as well never have existed. Sometimes though, to his own fear and delight, that writerly side manages to break free from its academic fetters, and a story will materialize.
Previous to the Scarlet Leaf Review, Morad’s short story “Valiollah’s 40th” was published by Storgy in 2015, and another one, “Sleepy,” was printed in the same year in “The Bones Behind Your Smile,” a Toronto short story compilation. He can be followed on Twitter at @aghamorad, and his sometimes-pompous reviews of movies and music can be read all over the Internet, specifically on Antiquiet,Unsung Films, Movie Mezzanine, PopOptiq, and Reverse Shot.
Her feet distracted him – each whiff of her cigarette followed by the flailing of her toes, her feet laid out and resting beside his knee on the wooden bench, clenching his attention with tenfold threshes. Painted green and blackened by the nightfall, the bench looked as though it was slumbering underneath her slim, chalky body. He felt as though he couldn’t control his urges, and definitely not his eyes. If only he could pounce atop her body then and there, if only their eyes and caresses meant more than the caress of distant friends. If only he had the courage to lose everything and start anew. If only she did too.
That prospect was long gone. Only regret boiled now, threatening the risk of overflowing, but never keeping with its promise, waning instead in the heat of his surrender.
"I shouldn't be doing this," she said after inhaling, wriggling her toes again, breathing out a waft both measured and slow burning.
There was no way she would leave her life, and it was unfeasible for him to leave his own. He had too little to offer, too little with which to even eke out his own existence.
He outstretched his hand toward the front of her face, accidentally but deliberately touching the crest of her largest toe with his palm in brisk motion. His fore and middle finger like locking blades, he grabbed the cigarette from between her thumbs and turned his head to the third of their three-piece crowd.
"I can’t smoke too much either," he exclaimed while looking at the one that wasn’t her. Scowling at the cigarette before taking his drag, he said with a voice boisterous and loud, "I never liked these things."
The third man looked on mutely, eying his friend with an unreceptive cool.
All three were fenced in a little courtyard that looked into a dimmed cafe. It was empty inside, but functioning.
Only a dark young girl with twisted hair was obliged to stay behind, leaning against the counter, and picture-perfect through the clear window that looked both inside and out. She was dallying with her phone, waiting for home and for her pay, leaving the band inside the speakers to play on with abandon, the hush its only spectator, relishing its cool jazz through coil and cone.
The third was peering inside, and the two across from him paid no notice. They were trapped inside their own charade.
"No, I don't like this garbage," the man exclaimed after a second drag, his face buckling with disgust before twining into a clownish grin. He was larger than the other two. Inevitably, his every expression was larger too, and his intentions more awkwardly manifest.
The woman smiled, and turned to take another cigarette from her purse.
"Parham," the large man then called out to the other, his voice still tinged with a trace of jest. "Why don't you just close up shop? We'll go to my place for a drink."
"You can drink here," the other rejoined.
"Put together something nice for me then, will you?"
A smile trickled from the speaker’s mouth, climbing along the sides of his mouth in accompaniment to his cigarette’s fumes.
"Something strong,” he added, fishing out a muffled “please” only after he had made his order.
The other man took no umbrage. He had already made out the desperation in his friend's tone of voice, a tone that concealed his vulnerability with vanity.
He peered from the outside into the window again, saw the girl and heard the jazz, and abided by his friend's order. When he reached the doorway, he turned and glimpsed the two across from him, toes perched beside a bloated belly.
"Catherine, do you want something too?" he asked the woman.
"I'm fine," she answered as frigidly as he.
Turning away, she let slip a grin, relishing her faultless imitation.
Passing through the doorway, he began to feel at home. The stretched out wooden bar, the marble countertop, the concrete floor that had withstood so many burdened shoes; they were his life, and reason for his contentment.
The familiar setting also prompted a familiar loathing inside him. Doomed to maintain it without any specific ending-point, he was reminded daily that he was trapped. That continuous daily vista, strained by its contained horizon, had held him back. His post obliged him to maintain the stillness of the too-still room. There wasn’t room for change, and the slight changes that were welcome were not changes, but ornamentations. They were for others to see, and for him to see through, pricking him with reminders that he was trapped, with his future and past held hostage.
Little by little, the bulbs hanging from the shop’s ceiling had begun to seem to him like corpses, swaying from the gallows to and fro, bereft of witnesses to unhang them and lay them down. Those bulbs were dimmed to impress upon passersby that this was a place for repose. This foreign land, though, knew no repose. It was a different world, and its quirks seemed more like strains to his weary eyes. And when he walked inside, his ears caught the echo of his shoes in the narrow, empty room.
Laying down her phone on the marble counter, the girl turned her back to him, and grabbing a rag from inside the sink, pretended to polish glasses that did not need polishing. It was evident to both persons that there was nothing left to do at that time of night, but to close up and to go back home.
The man veered to the back of the bar, willfully trying to ignore the girl. He forced his eyeballs to stay still within their trenches. Finally moving past the girl, he felt relief bordering on satisfaction, and rubbed his eyes and culled a bottle from its place. Pouring the drink into a large container, he shook it and drizzled it back into a tiny, hilted glass. He then hurried to the end of the bar, and with a sliced lime rocking in his palms, passed the girl again as she proceeded to soil washed dishes with a dirty rag, creating fruitless jobs to busy herself with. It was easier to disregard her the second time, he noticed.
Drink in hand, he hurled the paraphernalia into the sink for the girl to clean, and took his leave, proceeding to rub his eyes with his one free hand.
The two outside were carrying on in silent conversation, no longer speaking of cigarettes, but about youth.
He was telling her about his time in the theatre. The vocation had always fit Bahman’s figure, Parham thought. Portly and insecure, he might have made a marvelous Falstaff in his youth. But now, his roundness only seemed to suggest regret.
He placed the drink on the bench, by the side of Bahman’s thigh, the side safe from twitching toes.
"What small portions!" his friend cried out, holding the glass above his eyes and reciting his words as if they were written down. "But a magnificent color!"
Bahman pulled the glass down to his mouth, and took a sip. The sound of his modest sip briefly cleaved through the atmosphere. "And it tastes good too," he then approved. "Thank you, Parham jaan."
The jaan struck Parham, and his distaste mounted. The word only had two uses: one formal, and the other condescending.
Inwardly seething, he stood up and walked over to the woman's purse, and leaning down, rummaged through her bag with his bulky hands. The woman paid it no heed, giving Bahman all her attention instead.
"And did you stay in theatre?"
The big man’s face shriveled with a shamefaced smile. He bit his lip, took a sip of drink, and stared at the woman's shoulder, not daring to see her eyes.
"What do you think?"
"I don't know," she answered, anxious over the presence of the man foraging through her bag.
"Goddammit," she at last yelled at Parham, packing his wrist in her palm. "It’s right here. Just ask for it."
And placing the pack of cigarettes in his hands, she turned back to her friend.
"Go on," she continued, leaving her hand to rest on Parham’s wrist as she listened, as Bahman watched that hand gradually slide down into another man’s palms.
The confidence she exuded tormented him. It made him feel like vulnerability was a characteristic exclusive to his own breed and far-gone culture. He had never seen a woman as unthinkingly self-assured as her, having been accustomed throughout his life to women who were either too submissive or too delicate. From where he had come, women with fire were often hazed and pushed into chicken coops, unable to ever recover their spirit again. Her vitality captivated him, a product of a world that was still new and unfamiliar.
He peered again at her firm fist wrapped inside Parham's hand, and he trembled at what his friend had done. Perhaps noticing his stare, the woman withdrew her hand and cast it on her thigh instead. Before long, her idle hand grew restless. She curved her arm to her back, seeking Parham with her fingers, but she was only clutching at empty air. He had gone inside.
Embarrassed, she towed her dallied hand to feel her hair, and having recovered her poise, once more turned to Bahman. Their quiet looks were pitiful, but they looked on regardless.
"You can do something about it, you know," he suddenly heard her say.
His heart leapt. He could still not dare to look at her.
"I can't," he answered, just to have said something.
"You can just lean in and kiss me right now,” she said.
Bahman heaved his head upward to look at her, but she was looking far away; her eyes fixed on Parham’s movements, watching his stiff figure hastily scuttle back and forth behind the bar.
She plucked a cigarette, and lit it. Her head was still turned away, but her body was sprawled against his thighs and those toes were picking at his skin. He was frozen, and his mouth had dried. Finally, she turned her head and glared into his eyeballs, pulling the cigarette toward her lips.
“The consequences can come after,” she exhaled.
Bahman tried to speak, but instead belched out a few stammers.
He tried again, but his tongue would not go further than his teeth.
Tears bulged from behind his eyes, and his fingers turned to fists.
He tried again but only coughed, and when he pulled himself back up, he met her eyes, and beside them Parham’s towering frame.
The woman sat relaxed and resolute, still goggling into Bahman’s eyes, and flicking the embers of her cigarette.
"Nobody seems to want to explain this to me," she suddenly cried out, twisting her neck out toward Parham, and pointing at Bahman with her head.
Feeling overrun, Bahman let slip a startled gasp and held his breath, but no one seemed to notice.
"He’s not budging,” she confessed to Parham, as the other’s heart hammered against his chest. But the woman's words soon appeased him.
“He just won’t tell me why quit the stage?" she pronounced, allowing Bahman to breath again.
Suddenly and to his own surprise, her voice sounded hideous to his ear. How effortlessly she had detached herself from him. He no longer knew which side of her to give trust to. Her every word had begun to sound stained with insincerity. Why had she said those things, and why did she turn away so suddenly?
Cheerfully, she turned to Bahman with her mouth agape.
“Why don’t you tell me why you quit?” she asked again, playfully prodding his leg with kicks.
"Heroin," Parham retorted.
She gasped, and her gasp was beautiful, but Bahman didn't’ want it to be beautiful.
She then leaned over, grabbed his shoulder and peered at his hairless crown and face. Her round, open mouth, so close to his own face, lingered with a smile of surprise, and made him long for her again.
But when he dared to look back into her eyes, he saw that her stare was empty, with no one breathing behind their sea green tints. Without her vitality, she was scraps of a muffled personality. Nothing he longed for were inside those eyes.
An inkling of pity crept into the interior of his gaze. It made him feel much better.
Thus collecting himself, he rolled out his story for Catherine to hear.
"The heroin came after," Bahman pronounced. His words were directed at the breeze or at the nighttime hush. He took a sip of his drink, and turned to Parham.
Parham, having already been familiar with Bahman’s story, could easily shame his friend for the inevitable flourishes of his story. Bahman needed assurance that he wasn’t to be humiliated. After all, the man had reason to shame his friend into quietude, and he was capable.
A beard covered half his face, and his dropping lids screened his eyes. As if he had trapped his body inside an even greater shell, Parham refused his limbs and organs their freedom. They were protected, confined, ironclad.
Probing into Parham’s eyes, Bahman was powerless to find his answer. The man’s eyes were eternally void, hiding both his vulnerability and intent. His face was lifeless, but not unhealthy. Instead, it had been merely taught to conserve its energy.
Most of Parham’s exploits were carried out in ambiguities, Bahman called to mind. He only needed to switch his gaze to Catherine as proof.
Bahman had often questioned the two’s forbearing features, but however deeply he had foraged, he had been unable to discern a hint of their private lives.
Were they spent in the eternal quietude he had been witness to again and again? Had they learned control or had they inherited it? And if they had learned it, how?
He envied them. He was surrounded by those whose bodies were in their sway, guiding them like sailors would a vessel or Bedouins a four-legged animal, taking from the compliant only what they wished to take.
Unlike them, Bahman felt himself in shambles. Faults poured forth from him, heedless to his efforts to constrain them; his mass unceasingly defied his temperance; and above all, vulnerability had embedded itself in his persona, fusing with his personality so firmly that he was no longer able to distinguish the two. As a result, he had turned over his agency to the volatile chemicals that now had reign.
Perhaps that was why Catherine’s poise had possessed him: He yearned not for her body, but for her control, having seen in her the ability to curb her whims and transform from one creature into another.
His thoughts, however, had made him tired, and he resolved to speak instead.
"Catherine" he said while still speaking to the gust of wind. "It wasn't heroin.”
Taking a sip of his drink, he slipped a glance at Parham, and bit-by-bit, moved toward her gaze.
After letting out a stale chuckle, he continued.
“I quit because I was too fat to be any good."
Bahman screwed his eyes and scanned the two. Catherine genuinely watched on, but Parham’s shrouded eyeballs were mocking in their hush, bullying Bahman to keep to his rote and curb the flourishes.
Soundlessly, he complied.
"When you're as fat as I am in the theatre, you are guaranteed only two roles," he intimated, making sure to emphasize the word fat. “You either play the heavyset buffoon - you know, the one who stumbles on his way to stage to make you laugh,” he explained while spreading out his underarms and pantoming a tumbling motion with his hips and arms. “Or you are asked to play the wicked fatso - the one who strokes his gut as he sends good men to the gallows.”
He took another sip, and took a solemn pose, resting his elbows on his knees, and screwing up his brows. Softly shaking his head, he twirled the glass in his hand, raised it to his mouth, and guzzled down the drink.
"I asked for other roles, better roles, more dynamic roles, something that allowed me to show my range, something that proved how passionately I had toiled to be an actor.”
He paused and turned to Catherine.
“I wanted to be more than just a fool or a tyrant. But nobody took the risk of putting this potbellied curse on stage.”
He hid his gaze again, and moored his sight on the vacant street.
“Perhaps I didn't try as hard."
"Or maybe you weren't good," Parham scoffed, showing teeth before concealing them underneath his bristles.
"I’m not excusing myself," Bahman answered back, not yet turning to meet his scorn. "I didn't try as hard as I should have," he admitted, “but I tried.”
“I tried to lose weight, just so I could provide them with the figure of a could-be star,” he said while wryly glaring at the empty sky.
“But, as hard as I tried, this body ---" he clutched his stomach, "this fat just kept on spreading. It was as if it was mocking me, trying to get its message across that my dreams was on its clutches.”
His voice wavered, but recuperating quickly, he pressed on.
“As if ---"
But nothing came of it. He downed his empty drink again, and promptly realizing the absence of any liquid, he swallowed down his spit instead.
"Then I just stopped caring,” he confessed “I decided that I was condemned to this body, and I just caved. I gave this damn body exactly what it wanted. There was no future for me as an actor."
"Why didn’t you direct after?" Catherine retorted. "Why didn’t you write?"
The chill of her voice maddened him. Still and all, he wanted her.
"I lacked the patience to direct. I can’t work with others. It’s funny that I say that, since all I ever wanted to do was act, but it’s the truth. And after my failure as an actor, I loathed myself too much to sit down and write.”
“I just gave up, Catherine,” he professed, feelingly dallying into her abandoned eyes, having momentarily forgotten Parham and himself. "It was easy actually. I uncomplainingly began to play their fat roles for them, and accepted that I was to be forgotten. There was no Dublin or Stratford or London in my future. This was it. I would die a fat man on stage playing the roles every other forgotten fat man had played on stage.”
He paused, and briefly fastened his eyes.
“I speak like this now, but back then, I still couldn’t accept that this was to be my fate. I wasn’t religious then, nor am I now, but one night, I suddenly found myself praying to whatever god there was to rescue me. I prayed that somebody would find me, that somebody in the dark corner of the theatre would come up to me after a show and tell me that I had potential, assuring me that I was wasting away in these roles and that I was a better actor.”
“Hah!” he then snickered, trying to take the form of jester again, but failing. “You pray when you know you’re powerless.”
He reached over Catherine and snatched a cigarette. After failing to light it by himself several times, Catherine finally seized the lighter, and with a swift spark, set the cigarette alight.
Embarrassed, he carried on.
“But months later, a man did emerge from one of those dark corners. He wasn’t the man from my prayers though. He was from radio,” he laughed. “Telling me I had a good voice for radio, he assured me that there would be a job for me if I ever wished to jump ship.”
For a moment, Bahman looked puzzled, stroking his shaven face, and seeming to have been transported elsewhere.
“He had a beard just like yours,” he divulged to Parham suggestively.
“What did you do?” Catherine interrupted, carefully sundering their leers.
Relieved at the disruption, Bahman immediately beamed at Catherine.
“I quit, and went into radio.”
Her head was tilted and her neck exposed. He felt her feet beside his knees, but did not dare to look.
What was the worst that could come of it? he briefly considered, before switching his gaze to the street again and becoming wise to the repercussions. There was nothing that he could offer other than his helplessness.
To keep his mind sensible, he opted to carry on speaking, discerning that the faster his story ended, the quicker the night would too.
Just as he was on the cusp of fresher words, an unfamiliar figure approached their fray from the adjoining street. It was a boy much younger than they, hunched, clean-shaven, and high-spirited. Beside him was an older girl, and she too was unfamiliar.
"Can we come in?" the boy asked, looking over the three of them.
The two unbolted the gate and walked inside, moving at a distance from one another. The boy approached each one of them, and shook their hands.
“Mehran," he introduced himself.
The girl instead strolled on into the cafe without greeting either of her hosts. Bahman noticed tension in how the boy watched her walk inside.
After dallying between the three, the boy excused himself and timidly paced inside to join the girl. The other three watched them through the window as they ordered a drink.
“Do you know them?” Bahman asked Parham frowningly.
Parham shrugged and shook his head.
Bahman warped his neck and surveyed the boy and girl as they made their way back outside.
"So!" Bahman abruptly exclaimed when the two came past the doorway.
"Mehran khan!" he roared in a slow cadence. "What troubles have you two been causing so late at night?"
Though he teased them ceaselessly, Bahman recognized that their presence had eased the tension. He concealed his thankfulness, resolving to jest them instead.
"Not much," the boy rejoined, taking a brief glance at the girl before speaking again. "We were strolling in the area, and saw that the lights were on here. So we came in.”
He then turned to Parham. “Is that okay?"
"Sure," Parham nodded.
The girl accompanying the boy hadn’t said a word. She was perusing her phone. Its screen had illuminated the blackened night with a skin-deep blue.
"And what's your name?" Bahman asked sneeringly, outstretching his neck toward her, passing on his irritation.
She did not respond.
The boy nudged her awake.
"What's your name?" Bahman repeated.
"Lauren," she answered back, seizing her drink without delay and gulping it down.
"I have to go now," she then revealed to the boy and no one else.
Without haste, she stood, waved her hands, and walked away. The clinking of her heels was heard far past the café, and the boy's face collapsed in step with each dwindling clink.
In that instance, Bahman came to like the boy.
When the noise of footsteps receded, the boy tried to cloak his disappointment by appending a cigarette to his mouth. He asked for a lighter, and Catherine tossed hers, but the boy failed to catch it. The lighter fell to the ground. He bent to reach for it, but as he leaned over, his eyeballs seized on the woman’s feet, and his mouth faintly unlatched.
Uneasily, she withdrew her feet and planted them inside her shoes.
Relieved, Bahman shifted comfortably in his seat.
"Well, Mr. Mehran khan," Bahman proceeded with cheer. "You actually interrupted my story when you arrived. In truth,” he looked over to Parham, “it's my only story."
Parham smiled at him, but the implication of his smile was lost to everyone but himself.
Tossing the lighter back to Catherine, the boy apologized.
"What's your story?" he then asked.
“He’s telling us about the time he got hooked on heroin” Catherine immediately retorted with nonchalance.
To his disappointment, Bahman recognized that not even an added presence could help curb his hankering.
Struggling to keep his composure, Bahman resolved to carry on in a jesting tone. It was easier. He was convinced that he performed better away from the stage than on it, and he bemoaned his certainty.
"I was actually going to tell you about the time I went shark hunting," he turned to Catherine with a contrived beam.
Turning his head away, he looked past the gate at the empty street again, and tried to trounce his gloom with a simulated smile.
“The heroin came after,” he mumbled between his teeth.
"The radio was good to me, because no one could see me," he divulged in a slow whisper. He was unembarrassed by the boy’s presence. There was solace to be found in a stranger's ear. "All it required of me was my voice. The rest was like theatre. I only needed to know what words to accentuate, and the words were already written down for me."
He turned to Catherine again.
"It's not like it is here. There isn’t much room to improvise there, or to be yourself. I had to play a clear-cut role. It was uncomplicated, and believe it or not, it was even liberating sometimes."
His attention then veered toward the boy.
“Most of the time, it's actually harder to be yourself,” he shrugged melancholically.
By then, his voice had lost its animation, absorbed by memories that he was merely reciting.
“But the radio was also a political tool. It was state-run,” he told Catherine again, trying to familiarize her with another world. “They made me say things I didn’t want to say, things I wasn't proud of. When you’ve already given up on your ambitions though, you feel as if there’s no more dignity left for you to lose. So I swallowed my pride and did what I was asked to do. I often had to feign religiosity, mouthing prayers and opening the program with Bismillah-e-Rahman-e-Rahim. I had to praise a land that didn’t deserve praise, and I had to lie to people that they weren’t trapped. But the job offered me security, and so I complied.”
"Do you still have any recordings of those programs?" Catherine asked; her knees bent against her breasts and her feet hidden beneath her palms.
“Even if I did, I’d destroy them,” Bahman lamented. “This wasn't something I’m happy to have done,” he griped. “Some of the things I said, I shudder when I recall them coming out of my mouth. I wouldn't want to listen to them.”
He paused, and looked to the desolate street again. The soft wind was pulling up the debris and prodding it toward the gate, and into the cafe.
Parham stood up and closed the front door, impounding the girl inside.
"But there was one incident that really tore me to pieces," Bahman continued, eyeing Parham, as he moved back onto the bench. Changing course, he leveled his gaze at the boy.
"You're young, and you may not remember, but some decades ago, the capital became wrought with student protests. The regime had outlawed several of the country’s most broad-minded newspapers, and had given no reason for it. So a few hundred students, trying to fight for the fraction of a voice they had left, went out to protest the closure.
“These were peaceful demonstrations, organized by quiet university kids. They weren’t protesting just for the newspaper, but for the tiny ounce of freedom they were believed they had earned for having stayed quiet for so long.”
Bahman paused, and contemplated a cigarette. He saw the boy raise the smoke to his mouth, and exhale, and felt even more tempted.
“It's just a suffocating setting,” he continued, trying to control his drive. “Everything banned and outlawed, and lives tucked away underneath rooftops.
“These protests were fully justified, and it wasn’t as if those newspapers had really defied the law. No person with a typewriter or a computer could ever convince a populace to suddenly rise up and start a revolution. There are alternative reasons for revolts.
“But no matter. The government had felt threatened by a second-rate newspaper, and they had shut it down, and threatened again by these student protests, they made another drastic decision. One night, they let out the state police, like dogs, to raid the university dorm rooms and intimidate these kids. But it ended up being more than just intimidation. What they did was sickening. They threw them down their balconies, impounded them in Evin or god-knows-where, blackened their reputations, and disappeared dozens of these kids. It was hell. It broke the city's heart. It ruined our pipe dream for a better future - as if it hadn't been ruined already."
After dropping his head and letting out a drawn out sigh, he stretched his arm out toward a boy.
"Give me one," he pled, his voice quivering.
The boy reached into his pocket for his pack, but before he boy could manage to pull one out, Catherine had already handed Bahman a cigarette. She lit it for him, and he took a drag and coughed.
"The day after the raid, two of my supervisors walked into the studio and set a single sheet of paper on my desk. I can't remember their faces anymore. I just remember being seated when they marched inside, and from where I sat, they seemed bigger than I was. I had to read from that sheet for the afternoon news show. And this thing, it was almost like a decree. It was full of lies. It accused the boys that were killed as traitors, claiming that safety was the nation’s first priority, and they had kept their promise to protect their citizens. According to that piece of paper, those poor engineers and art students were armed with weapons. It said that they had attacked the university security guards, and that’s how the slaughter was instigated. You see--" he took a drag and laughed. "I couldn't read the damn thing. It’s not like I could tell my listeners that this was a statement pushed on me. I had to read it as if they were my own words, as if I truly believed in all this. It was ugly. You didn’t have to have any dignity to see how wrong it was. It was the last straw for me.
“Still in shock, I went downstairs to the cafeteria just before I was supposed to go on air, and I just sat there and I took out my pack of cigarettes, and I smoked them one after another, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do."
As if transported, Bahman took a long drag of his cigarette.
"And I just walked downstairs, into my car, and I drove away.”
“Where?” Mehran interrupted.
“I had no clue. I decided that I’d be fine so long as I didn’t have to be near those people, as long as I didn't have to parrot those awful words. Since I just got up and drove away, nobody knew where I had gone. I thought I was done for. I thought that at some point they would come and find me. That they would disappear me like they had those students.”
“I was so scared, Catherine," he quavered, before turning to Parham. "I was terrified."
Set adrift in his recollections, the jest in Bahman’s tone vanished, and his whims were quelled. The role of storyteller gave him repose. Words were a fine escape.
"I drove past a toll booth, and realized then that I was driving through the countryside. It was world I had forgotten about after years confined inside that city. I wanted to see this world again. So from then on, I made sure to stop the car every once in a while, and walk around these towns.
“The people there were so detached from the goings-on of the capital. They lived their lives quietly, with families, friends, and work that they didn’t mind busying themselves with. Their voices were free of the malice of city; their skin was unwrinkled. They seemed to be living much better lives than us.
“You see,” he paused and peered at Mehran. “We claim to be cultured in the big city, we think that because we read and because we are so constantly informed, we are of the sophisticated kind.”
Then his gaze drifted toward Parham.
“But I tell you: we are nothing. We have forgotten life. We have forgotten how simple and unrefined life actually is.
“To be in nature - no I’m not going to say that. It’s not nature that I’m talking about. What I mean to talk about is the unrefined places these people live in, places without highways, apartment buildings, shopping malls, and cubicles called offices; these villages and towns. In places like that, you are encouraged to leave behind your so-called sophistication. Your mind, your bookishness – they aren’t welcome. there Unless it’s applicable, it’s snobbery, and that’s a good thing.”
“It’s a very good thing,” Bahman echoed under his breath, pausing to toss the half-lit cigarette into the street.
“You see,” he pressed on. “Over there, you are so caught up with real life and real living that your thoughts mean nothing in the big picture, and your anxieties only add up to specks of wheat. What is this anxiety we have over maintaining our legacies, or being remembered? We strive to immortalize ourselves so hysterically that we forget who we are. Everything we do becomes a performance, turns into playacting.
“They don’t care for any of this.”
A sigh poured from him, and he shook his head.
“I don’t mean to be naïve, and I don’t mean to say that they are better than us. They are probably just as susceptible to throw fits and hit their kin, or to steal from others like we do.”
At that point, his eyeballs defied him, awkwardly meandering in Parham’s direction.
“And doubtless they can be cruel. But, does it make me cruel to say that I don’t care about their stealing or abuse?
“They’re not better than us, but they live better lives than we do.
“And these people were the people I was supposed to lie to on the radio. How could I have dared cheat them of the truth? They knew more than I ever would.
“But I had rule over them, because I had the power to speak to them through a microphone in a little studio. Because I could easily fill their heads with fraud when reading from a mere piece of paper; assure them that their country was safe because a couple of engineers were thrown off their balconies.
“My job was to make them believe lies, and you know what? They did believe these things. But they didn’t believe it because they were dense or foolish; they believed it because they didn’t care for any of it. Politics to them was a waste. To them, standing in an open field, seeing the blue lining of the sky shine against the grass; that was life. The rest they just took for granted, and put in the back of their minds. But you know, even those little words lodged into the back of simple people’s minds mattered. I didn’t want to have a part in any of that. I wanted to let them live a life that was more than protesting or foul authority. I wanted them to have their simple lives of family, friends, and work. Let us cultured sophisticates consume ourselves with our made-up miseries. But let them live, I thought. Because they truly lived."
"Life is much simpler," he repeated aloud, looking at Catherine and suggesting nothing.
"And then came the heroin, Mehran khan" he grinned, his face transforming to a jester’s once more. “Then, came the heroin.”
"After passing through those towns and villages, I suddenly found myself in the south of the country. I always say that my car drove me there by itself, because I have no recollection of getting there. I don't know where I slept throughout this drive, or where I ate. I remember the days and nights surrounded by the townspeople, but the rest is a blur. Suddenly, one day, I found myself staring at the gulf, thinking about the sharks in the sea, and trying to figure out my own future."
He watched the concrete space between his bench and the one across from him as if it too was thick with sharks.
"But I do remember where I slept and ate when I reached the gulf.”
“See,” he pressed on, “There were these tea houses. Sailors would go there to rest, drink, and spent their off-hours playing cards and telling stories. Having already been there for a few days, I joined them. For some reason, by then I had begun to feel guilty for having run away from the city, and so I told them everything. It had been a traumatic experience for me, and I thought they could put me at ease and offer me some sympathy.”
“And did they?” Parham asked, already knowing the answer.
“They just shrugged it off. They told me I had no courage. Big words, but words befitting a sailor."
Still feeling the repercussion of those words, he grabbed another cigarette from the side of Catherine's knees. He was pleased that those toes no longer haunted him.
He tried lighting the cigarette, but for the second time, he was unable to. Catherine leaned over again and lit it, her palm wrapped around its neck.
Breathing the smoke out with relief, he suddenly caught Parham's glare. It was a poker-faced linger neither content nor melancholic, but left cold in the wake of their charade.
"I'm a stubborn person," he said, boldly staring back. “Though I knew that they were right to judge my lack of courage, I couldn’t accept these words coming from a bunch stranger. What did these boatmen know about my life or struggles? But I didn’t argue with them. I was afraid,” he sneered. “You should have seen these people.”
“They were much bigger than even I was," he remarked in jest. "Bred to be at sea, bred to hunt, and to fight, and die as hard-bodied men; and a part of me ---"
He paused, and let out a sigh confused with smoke.
"A part of me wanted to be like them. I hungered for their self-control, their vitality. That's the word, yes! Their vitality! That’s one quality that is un-inheritable and unlearnable. But desperately I hoped that it could also be transferable."
“See, you have that in you,” he told Parham. “You may not show it, but you’re full of it.”
He surveyed Mehran and Catherine as well, but resolved to keep quiet.
“So, confusing pigheadedness with courage, I told them that I’ll accompany them on their next journey to the sea. I didn’t even know what they did at sea, and I was obviously unprepared.”
"When does the heroin come into this?" Catherine snarled, perhaps having noticed the brief look he had cast on her and the boy.
"Well," he forced a laugh. "It came that night, and the day after, and every day until, well," he lowered his tone and sighed, "until Mahgol came along."
“That very day,” he went on, “when it was already dark and the shop had technically closed, the owner dimmed the lights and came to our tables with a tray full of this brownish powder. It's funny,” he chuckled. “It was piled up on this tray like a kid’s science project; this big mound of heroin, concealed all day under the shop owner's cash register. Then, he brings out a bag of syringes, and lays them out on our table. It was so comedic! To suddenly have your table, that was full with ghelyoon, tea and biscuits, stuffed with tar and syringes. Nobody offered any to me, you see, but I felt obliged because I was intent on proving myself to them.
These weren't bad people either. To them, this wasn't vice. It was just something they quietly did amongst themselves. They hadn’t pressured me to do this, but they had shrugged off my struggles as urbane and petty throughout the day, and it got to me. I felt like I had to prove my courage not only to them, but to myself. And so, I picked a syringe, and ---”
Swiftly whittling his arm with his palm, Bahman brushed his skin and tightened his muscles. Then, miming the likeness of a syringe with his hand, he thrust the nonexistent contraption to his forearm, and pushed.
"Click," he snapped between his teeth, the corner of his mouth clutching to his half-burnt cigarette.
Maintaining the pose, he turned his sight on Catherine.
“I just realized you never asked me about the heroin,” he admitted. "You asked me why I quit the theatre, I know, but the heroin was a part of it too. It helped me leave behind that fraction of an illusion I still had about going back and finding greatness. It quenched my thirst.”
He flashed a glance at Parham.
“Nothing mattered afterwards. Everything flew by quietly, without fuss.”
“You see,” he continued, “Shooting up on one random night doesn’t get you hooked. There was more to it. It had to do with the day after. It had to do with the sharks.”
His neck slithered toward the side-road again as he peered at a passing vagrant. Red lipstick smeared over her mouth, she was in the midst of recounting her own story, her words unintelligible, but words; her cherry mouth gaping and then stoppering, propelling jabber onto a hollow street. No one heard her, and no one could.
As he continued to peer on, Catherine snatched the cigarette from his hands, taking unruffled drags, and waiting.
“So Mehran khan" he aped, before breaking off again, looking off and sighing into the lonely road.
He took a breath and dropped his head, before lifting it again with a labored snicker.
"And off to sea I went the following day!”
“We were on this rickety boat with three of the sailors,” he continued. “And it seemed as if the prior night’s carousing had done nothing to affect them. They had vigor, you see, shouting from the top of their lungs, giving out orders to one another, or poking fun. These weren't just sailors, I realize now. These were men; warriors with hefty shoulders, callused hands, and voices as loud as that violent sea.”
“Then, there was me,” Bahman chuckled, “leaning against that shaky, wooden boat and heaving throughout the ride. They didn’t pay me any attention either. They had already marked me as a coward, and they knew that I wasn't meant for this. Sick at sea, I grasped how right they were, and how stubborn I had been to dare come on this trip with them. The opiates hadn’t done me any favors either.
“An hour into the trip though, I lifted my head and saw the sea for what it was, endless as it was, and I was overwhelmed! I made every effort to hoist myself up. This sea, these men, they were much greater than I. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I didn’t at least try to prove my pluck. To them, I was a pot-bellied weakling who had run away. I needed to be more than that, for myself and for them. I had to regain at least a portion of the strength I had given up.
“Soon, my sickness was over. I was on my feet, looking at that great stretch of water, preparing myself alongside the sailors for something. I didn’t quite know what we were getting into, or why we were actually at sea.
“An instant later, the three of them began to holler at one another, but their dialect was unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t make a word of it. Then, one of them outstretched his hand, and pointed to a tiny stretch ahead.
“I still didn’t know what to make of all the commotion, but when I moved closer and squinted my eyes, I saw it.
“The third took out a spear, and before I knew it, they all had spears in their hands and so did I!" Bahman laughed heartily, shaking his head
"It was a thrill! I stood up, and began to shout out nonsense to sound like them. I think I just panicked and didn’t know what else to do. Straightening my shoulders, I pushed them back, and held onto the spear with both my hands. Feeling the dry ends of that stick, I still remember that, for a second, I felt an urge to wash my hands, but I held on to the spear by instinct and waited.
“My irrational fears, my spinelessness - they meant nothing in that moment. I wanted to be them. No, not just that. I wanted to become them. And I tried. My god, I tried!"
"When the shark came, everything blurred. I rushed toward it when I heard the three men yell, and without thought, I yanked the spear into the water."
First pausing to create suspense, little by little, Bahman let his mouth widen and his teeth show.
"All of a sudden, it seemed easy. I had achieved in a moment what they had given their entire lives to master. Not only had I proved myself, but I had killed this animal after having puked for an entire hour!
“I precisely remember how the sides of my mouth opened up with a hideous, self-loving grin. Spear in hand, I turned over to them to flash that grin, and just as I turned, the damn thing leapt from the sea and nearly flipped the boat!
“All I remember after that is scurrying to the safest corner on my hands and knees, shaking and squealing like a child. Then, their boots hurried past me, I heard some clamoring, and finally shrieking - virile shrieks.
“Soon after, everything suddenly came to a standstill, and just as it did, I fainted! Imagine that!" he guffawed. "I passed out!”
“And you know,” Bahman narrowed his eyes. “Those brutes never held it against me. They dragged my carcass to the teashop, brought me lunch, and laughed with me and took care of me all day.”
"What happened to the shark?" the boy asked.
“They killed it, brought it to shore, and sold it. It turned out that my spear hadn’t even grazed the damn thing.”
He picked out another cigarette, lit it by himself, and took a drag.
“This is how my stories always end, Mehran khan,” he sniggered self-effacingly. “Never with me as the hero."
“And what did you do after that?” the boy persisted.
"Nothing," Bahman groused, busy with his cigarette and his thoughts. "I drove back, shot up again, read the passage, and got my job back."
The snigger fell from his face.
"And then," he added impulsively, "I carried on shooting until Mahgol found me, cleaned me up, and brought me here."
Looking off again, Bahman sloped his head and suppressed a cough.
The rustle of garbage being jostled by a gust of wind broke the hush.
Giving off a loud grumble, Parham got up and ambled to the doorway.
“You can head home if you want” he suggested to the girl inside. “I'll close up.”
When he sunk back into his seat, the funereal stillness resumed.
"How long ago was this?" the boy leaned in and asked softly, pinching the skin on the back of his hand and not daring to punctuate the silence.
"Well," Bahman replied, visibly worn by his story. "To tell you the truth, I don't even know anymore."
"How long have you known me?” he passed the conversation on to Parham.
"Four years," Parham curtly answered. "Maybe five.”
“This happened five or six years ago then,” Bahman guessed. "This guy’s actually the first person I met when I came here," he then gestured to Parham. “Catherine, too" he added reluctantly, withholding any gesture.
"When did you come here?" Bahman asked the boy, thankful for his presence.
"Just a year ago actually," the boy replied, "and I really haven't found my footing here so far, to be honest with you."
The boy made sure to look at every single one of them as he spoke, making eye contact, and speaking civilly. Perhaps, he hoped that among those people, he could find the foothold he had not yet found. As he turned from eye to eye, he soon lost his bearings in Parham's dead gaze, laboring after not to look at the man again.
Squeezing his thumb and fingers with light pinches, he looked on at the other two, waiting to be asked questions.
"What brought you here?" Bahman asked soon enough.
The boy stuttered in retort, feeling the puff of Parham’s gaze against his neck.
"Come on, boy!” Bahman suddenly assailed him with a trace of playfulness. “You shouldn't make me interrogate you. Talk, ramble, shed tears, do something.”
“You see these friends of mine?" he continued, opening his arms wide and pointing to his two companions and the city confining them. "They say nothing at all. They move quietly and speak quietly, and they do nothing whatsoever to interest me.”
“I love them,” he ironically beamed at Parham, “and I love them to death, I do," not daring to look at Catherine after.
It seemed to the boy that Bahman was speaking without aim. For a moment, noticing the lethargy on Catherine and Parham’s faces, he felt embarrassment for him. But Mehran was enjoying it. Hearing words howled in the dark of night gave him relief. He had hardly a heard a sound during his time in the new city, and was thankful for the sparks of awkward thunder.
"My friends, you see," Bahman pushed on. “They don't like to speak. All they do is sit around while I play the role of emcee for their humdrum lives.”
He couldn’t have been drunk, Mehran considered. He had noticed an empty glass by Bahman’s side, but that must have been guzzled long ago. This was melancholy that was hollering out of him, not drink. It was a cry for company, and an act of defiance against dying hours and their need for sleep. This was a man’s refusal to go home after having intimated his life to an audience without sympathy, a man’s quiet demand to be recompensed for his grief.
“--- by spewing self-pity for them, and you know something?"
Having missed the first half of the man’s remark, Mehran peered on as Bahman leaned toward the boy’s direction.
"They need this," he grinned. "People here need someone to speak for them because they can't. They don't know how to express themselves. They've surely loved, and I’m certain that they’ve lost and regretted and made a fool of themselves as much as I have in life, but they have never learned to convey their loss with words. Because, you see, as much as they've lost and loved, they've never been misplaced.”
He flecked his brow with a frown, and set aside his farce for sober thought.
“You seem like you have been misplaced, boy. If you’ve yet to find your footing in this city like you say, then you can speak. You have nothing to lose after all. We’re not your friends yet. We’re strangers, bored out of our minds and waiting to hear something that could rouse us.”
“You know how many times I’ve repeated my own story to people?” Bahman reflected aloud. “More times than you can imagine! That’s why I can recount it word for word. It’s almost become a monologue for bored nights like this one. Each of us has one story, after all, throughout our lives, we have this one story that we can share time and time again.”
He turned his attention to the boy again.
“It is cruel if we refuse to share it, like these two are cruel,” gesturing with a nod at Parham and Catherine. “Don't patronize me by making me guide you, question by question, toward something you want to say. Speak for yourself."
Having finished his thought, Bahman immediately felt regret. What had he said, and how was it possible for him to simultaneously feel both relief and shame for having spoken? His body was beyond his control.
“Just shut up,” came a quiet murmur from Mehran’s side of the bench.
All three, except for the puzzled boy, laughed, though Bahman laughed more because he had to.
"Your life isn't a performance, and you're not misplaced either, for fuck’s sake,” Parham hissed. “You messed your life up just like everybody else. The only difference is that you like to pity yourself. That's there is to you. You talk about yourself so much that you've come to believe that you're some great Greek tragedy, when you're not. You're just another fuck-up who didn’t get what they wanted like all the rest of the fuck-ups of the world.”
Parham chuckled, but he was on his own.
“The only difference is that you just talk a lot more than we do,” he shook his head. “Not every single one of your thoughts is worth uttering, you know. You think because you’ve failed at something, your story is worthy of some legacy when really, it's just a matter of ---."
"They are worthy of a legacy," the boy interrupted to his own surprise. His heart sunk, and his head roared with a rush of blood.
With his eyes half-closed and his arms cradled into one another, Parham ignored the boy entirely and finished his thought.
“They’re just a matter of words,” he spelled out.
“But they’re not,” the boy argued again, as he felt his muscles limp with fear.
Across from him, he could also see the willowy veins protruding from Bahman’s hairless skull.
"To think that your life is worthy of some sort of narrative is vanity,” Parham retorted, refusing to even cast his eyes at the boy.
“So what if it’s vanity?” Bahman countered this time. “You’re saying you’re not vain, Parham? That you don’t hold your opinion, your author---”
Parham’s stare turned aflame, and Bahman immediately amended his remark.
“You mean to say,” he stuttered, “that you’re not vain?” A weaker claim.
“I am vain, but I don’t subjugate others to my bursts of self-pity,” Parham retorted coolly, already having collected himself.
“She asked me to!”
“No, you steered her toward curiosity. You made her ask you, because you wanted to talk, because you didn’t want to go home to Mahgol just yet.”
The accusation poured out like fluid smoke, unaccompanied by even a hint of hesitation. It left Bahman quivering.
To stop the ceaseless shakes, an exhausted Bahman ironed his arm against the bench, and clutched with each hand the other wrist, wishing to thaw his nerves.
"Stories aren't my concern,” Parham turned to the boy unscathed. “It’s trite.”
He then snared Bahman in his sight again, relishing his feverish arms, and offering him no solace.
“Right now, I’m thinking of how much sleep I'll get before I have to wake up and open this goddamned cafe tomorrow. I’m thinking of how many times I have to lock and unlock those doors until I find a way out.”
“And In the past few months,” he continued, leaning his head toward the boy without looking. “I’ve also had to endlessly consider what I’m going to do with the bar, how to make people come inside this place at nights, how to make it alluring to onlookers, and I have to do all of this while I’m still trying to find my way out.”
“Little stories – they’re fine,” he finally turned to the boy, his eyes still sunk, his voice no more than a mere mumble. “But they're fine when you have the convenience to listen to them. I don't have that convenience. Maybe I had it when I was younger, when I didn’t have a lot to do in life but wake up every day. Now it’s different.”
Though Parham hadn't been eyeing him at all, Bahman felt Parham's glare when he made that final remark. He knew it was about him, and he knew that it was true.
"I have to sleep too," Catherine spoke, rustling her body to intimate her intention to leave.
"Could you give me the keys?" she asked, glowering at Parham and refusing to utter his name.
Dropping his strained eyes and eyebrows, Parham produced a key from his coat pocket, and unchained one single key from the rattling throng. Just as he was about to toss the key, he paused. "Where's yours?"
“I’m either tired or drunk,” Catherine grumbled, trying to conceal the fact that she was neither, and only trapped.
Retrieving her set of keys, she dangled them in Parham’s line of sight with a palled on leer. Tied to the keychain was a white, miniature running shoe.
Spying at her hands, Bahman found the tiny shoe out of place. He did not consider why. Instead, he wrenched his eyes away so as to maintain his reclaimed composure, thumbing the wind’s icy vacuum instead.
"It's cold too," Catherine immediately added, to his surprise.
"I'll wait for her to close up, and I'll be home soon," Parham said, twitching his head in the direction of the cafe as he maintained his gawk at Catherine.
“Home,” Catherine wryly murmured to the wind.
“What’s wrong with you?” Parham suddenly leapt at her, but he didn’t let her answer. “We’ll talk about it after,” he said, veering his eyes toward the boy and feeling a bit embarrassed.
Having noticed his face buckle, Catherine shook her head and stood to leave.
In that moment, as a consequence of either his fear of loss or purely his fear of being left alone, Bahman’s arm abruptly vaulted over and his hand clutched at Catherine's wrist before falling inside her hand.
“Stay,” he said, peering up, his pupils dilated and his breath suspended.
As his hand clenched hers, he caught sight of Parham's bitter gaze, and then feeling the wind move swiftly past his palm, he noticed that he had let go of her.
But the black of his eyes had made her stay.
Sitting down, she produced a dispassionate smile and peered on at Parham, biting her teeth.
“What made you stay?” Parham then asked, scorning the two of them.
Again, she wasn’t meant to answer him. A diffident voice punctured the strained atmosphere before she could.
His heart no longer at ease with obedience, the boy had begun to speak.
In consequence of his own terror of being left alone, he too had lost control.
“You may like to think that these stories have no benefit to man as busy as you, but ---” the boy spewed out to Parham, trying to fill the burdened air with words.
Relieved, Bahman's tense muscles slackened and the vessels on his skin receded. He craved a cigarette, but saw that Catherine had put hers away. He then stood and squatted toward the boy, who was lost in a string words and inaudible memories, and pulled out a cigarette from his side. Sitting back on the bench, he realized that he did not have a lighter, and let the cigarette linger in his mouth instead. Irritably, he removed it and proceeded to rip it to pieces, playing with the tobacco tumbling between his fingers.
He hadn't heard anything that the boy was spouting, but when the cigarette was no more, he lifted his head and turned toward the two.
A peculiarity took hold of his attention as he viewed the hurried conversation. Those eyes that had been trained to be eternally vacant were loosening, and their keeper was leaning forward, spine protruding from his skin, transfixed by another man's story - a boy's.
Bahman resolved to affix his ear to the first word that the boy would say next, and to listen.
"--- and maybe they are menial, but they make up who we are. You may think that they’re not worth hearing about, that they have no direct benefit to you or," Mehran looked around, "to this cafe, but why should that matter? Stories aren’t told to uphold an end. We tell them because it’s in us. For some reason, we have an innate need to share and to express ourselves, and, and ---" the boy began to stutter, having lost his train of thought. "They make you who are you,” he struggled to recapture his words, “these stories, and they ---“ but the words were lost.
Struggling, he mustered a few more words. "They are meant to be shared,” he bobbed his head. “If we can’t share our moments, then ---” he hesitated and directly sought Parham’s eyes. “Then what's the point of living? What's the point of being anything at all?"
Though he spoke bravely, Mehran felt a strain pressing down behind his eyes. Looking around at the older adults, he was overcome by unease. Who was he to make them listen to his views?
The three of them were better off at home, it seemed. An end to their night was the only thing that could rejuvenate the taut air that even the boy had begun to breath among them. Despite being aware of the intensifying tension, Mehran resolved to carry on speaking. To him, a new day equaled a renewed struggle in an unfamiliar city, whereas for once on that one night, he was attended to by ears that would hear him and eyes that would see.
Mehran quickly peeked at Bahman to see if he too wished for another day. But Bahman was already peering back at him, fighting against time, and subtly nodding to the boy to carry on.
After seeing an older man so desperate, the mid-summer chill became more palpable and made him quiver. He didn’t know whether he was nervous or cold. He only wished to stay warm.
So he spoke, indulging without hesitation, fearing that he may never be given a chance to speak again.
"Even now," he continued, "just the fact that I walked inside this place and sat with you without knowing you, that’s something I wouldn't have done if it hadn’t been for what I went through. I wouldn't have dared to.”
“This is precisely what I’m talking about, you see,” he stressed, waving his hands in Parham’s direction. “The difference between me from two years ago and myself tonight is those menial stories."
"Why are you here?" Parham asked, unable to curb the speck of condescension in his voice.
Courage passed through Mehran veins, but it was fear again that made him speak.
He may never have another chance, he reminded himself before answering.
"Because I'm alone."
Upon saying it, Mehran grasped that his remark may have not been as juvenile as he had feared. The strain behind his eyes had also vanished.
Promptly recognizing that he needed a night of confession more than he did a coterie, he convinced himself that he wasn’t going to return to the café after this.
"I'm probably not as vulnerable as I am now when I’m not alone,” he noted. “I'm probably not very kind when I'm not alone either.”
“Get to the point,” Parham cut him off.
The boy obliged.
“I left my home, not because of something devastating like what happened to Bahman," Mehran admitted, feeling a pinprick of guilt for having said a stranger’s name so boldly. “I left, because one day I suddenly realized that I couldn’t survive in a place like that.”
“I was spoiled,” he sighed. “I've always been spoiled, being told time and time again by mother, father, aunts, and uncles that we, as a family, deserved more than the place we lived in, that we were better than its people, than its circumstances, its every bit. Being told such a thing from an early age makes you very vain when you get older.”
“Worse than that,” he paused. “It made me weak.”
“I went about life thinking I could do everything better than others could, that I already had everything I wanted from life, and I did. They would just give it to me. Life was simple for me. For me, opportunity seemed to have always been knocking, and happiness was unconditional.”
Clenching his fist and straightening his arms, he bit his lip and bore a mournful grin.
"This is what I’m talking about when I say that I haven’t found my footing in a place like this. The foothold, for me, was that complete unawareness of the world around me. It was something I had been born with.”
“When I lost it, everything around me started to collapse,” he sighed, unlatching his hand and letting it drop onto his knee.
“It happened long before I ever came here," he added, before reaching out for a cigarette.
The last, remaining cigarette was chipped at the neck. He stared at it and let out a chuckle, and then returned it to its pack.
"It's foolish and commonplace, I know, because all that happened was I lost someone I never had."
He expected Parham to deride him, but the man said nothing. In fact, no one spoke. Even Bahman’s attention seemed to have wavered. The boy surmised that they were heavy-eyed, but refused to comply with their tiredness.
"This person just disappeared one day," he proceeded. "Nowhere to be found."
Biting his lip again, he looked out onto the empty space between the benches, finding nothing there but shaded concrete.
"I didn’t know her very well either. I had met her a few months before she disappeared, at the side of the university.” He lifted his head, and glanced at Bahman for assurance. “You know, the fifty tooman entranceway.”
Bahman nodded absent-mindedly.
“A rally was happening and ---" Mehran paused.
"All these stories seem to have some sort of political backdrop to them,” he remarked while shaking his head. “They give the impression that over there everything that happens has to do with politics.”
Then turning his gaze to Catherine, he said: "But they don't have anything to do with it."
"I know," Catherine winked wearily.
Suckling at the inside of his lips, Mehran fastened his eyelids and sniffled.
"I just clutched her hand when it got dangerous,” he pronounced, his eyes still shut. “When the police force began shooting warning shots and threatened to beat us with their batons, that’s when I reached out for her,” he said to no one. “In that great sea of people, I had noticed only her.”
Remembering his promise to never return to the café, Mehran resolved to be more candid.
“I may have even wished for gunfire just so I could do exactly what I did: to take her with me, to rescue her."
He expected a reaction, but received none.
"Everybody screamed, and they carried on beating. Only meters ahead, I can't say I saw it, but afterwards, I had others tell me that a girl was shot right in the head.
“By then though, we were already running in a different direction, I was holding her hand and she held on to mine. She was afraid, like I was, but fear hadn't paralyzed me like it usually does. I had somebody to run with, somebody that, when things calmed down, I could look at and speak to, and recall this moment with. It was ideal."
Looking into the hollow concrete again, the boy beamed wistfully at the memory.
"Finally, just as we were making off with the rest of the crowd, an old woman, standing outside the door of an old-looking house ushered us inside. I remember clearly how she smoothed the girl’s scarf with her hand as she pushed her into the doorway.
“There was six or seven of us, and the lady let us all hide out in her home’s courtyard. We could hear black boots clink and clatter behind the wall, and I was almost certain that they would charge inside any moment to take us away. Fearing the worst, I finally began to feel paralyzed, but it lasted for only a second. The girl, so delicate even in her panting and trembling, pressed her face against my arm, and cradled it tightly in her hands. How could I fear anything with her beside me like that?"
"What was the protest for?" Catherine interrupted, sitting straight again, her eyes returning from their absent veers, one leg dangling atop the other.
"It doesn't matter," Mehran answered, secretly appalled by his brisk response.
To alleviate his own guilt, he immediately rectified his answer.
“It was for the elections, I'm sure you remember. The elections they stole from us. Like everybody else who protested that day, I had voted too, feeling cheated after the results came in. But truthfully, most of us got over it the moment we saw the results. I mean, what did we expect? That a government ruling with an iron first will decide to lay down its guns all of a sudden because people went to the ballots and asked them to? We kid ourselves. We like to hope, even when we know our hope is unmerited. Most people know this, and they knew it when they went to the streets that week.”
“We weren’t protesting because we felt robbed or offended,” Mehran snickered. “We went because everybody else was going. We followed the few people who were genuinely angry, genuinely idealistic; the few people who actually felt robbed by those scummy elections.
“I went because I also knew that, when it all came to blows, I would have a story to share, that I could tell people that I was a part of these protests. I needed a tale from the streets for myself, just like I knew they'd have theirs.”
“But,” he sighed. “I never told this tale.”
“It became too personal, too much of something I cherished, much more than I thought it would,” he added.
"Sorry for my rudeness," the boy bobbed at Catherine, feeling it necessary, needing the relief.
She nodded back with a mute stare.
"For what felt like an hour, we just sat and waited in the courtyard. Then, one by one, the old lady led us out by the door she had steered us through earlier.
“My friend and I – I mean the girl, we walked out together hand-in-hand. We were holding on to one another, you see. She was still afraid, and I just didn’t want to let go of her. Outside, the alleyway was littered with paper and plastic, flyers and dust, and we realized that we had evaded the incident entirely. We were safe.”
“By the time we said goodbye to our companions and walked away though,” the boy moaned. “She had let go of my hand. All I wished for after that was to win her back, but I just didn’t know how.”
A continuous hiss dragged off his tongue.
“I keep thinking that I know her name,” the boy explained. “I keep trying to sound it out in my head. Then I remember that she never told me her name. There never came the time to ask, or maybe I just didn’t ask her when I could have.”
"We got into a cab together. In the cab, we sat without speaking, and when the car arrived at her house – it was a nice-looking house - she just got out, walked to her door, waved, and left me in the car. I had even failed to ask her name,” he repeated. “And she wasn’t interested in mine.”
"I didn’t tell a soul about what had happened with her. I didn’t want my parents to worry, and since I hadn’t told them about the protests, I had to leave out the girl as well. To the few friends I told the story to, I left out the part about the girl, focusing instead on the person getting shot a couple of steps ahead of us – I told them I saw it - and lying low in that old lady’s house. A story about a girl whose hand I held for a few minutes would make them laugh, and show how desperate I was."
His three listeners were restive. The story had ended up being an echo of juvenility. It couldn’t keep their interest. They had experienced it themselves, told stories of it in their youth just as the boy was now. No story of youth was as interesting as the youth telling it thought it was, and this was no exception.
Noticing this, the boy discerned that he had slipped in his storytelling. Having never told his tale before, he did not know how to begin, where to pause, and what to emphasize. He was speaking from the heart, but a speech from the heart didn’t interest listeners. He lacked the gift of oration and so his words meant little. But he beat on, heedless to their impatience. This was his story to tell, and his relief to feel from it.
"Then I found her," he rebounded. "A day or two after the incident I went by her house. I remembered the address. I had made sure to remember it. As soon as my classes ended, I hurried to that address, and sat across the street from which she had waved goodbye to me. Every day I waited, hoping to see her again. I waited for two hours on the first day, and she never showed up at the door. The second day, and the third was the same. I knew that she was in my university, but I never saw her on campus. The only place I could find her was by her door. That’s why I would go.”
“And finally on the fourth day,” the boy lit up, “I remember it clearly, it was a Thursday, I had taken a cab up to her house after university and had stood there from one in the afternoon to two, when I saw her again, walking home alone, with her head down, dressed in a colorless manteau, not wearing any makeup, and devoid of her radiance. But she was beautiful, as alluring as she had been in my mind.”
“I don’t know how I didn’t make out the signs then,” the boy’s face buckled as he struggled to look for words. “I was at such a loss that I didn’t even look to see her trudging without any shoes on.”
“Speechless as I was, I approached her,” he soldiered. “There was terror in her eyes. At the time, I thought the terror was because she had seen me! Greedy as I was for her, her frightened look offended me. I surmised that she hadn’t anticipated seeing me again. ‘So you’re just going to pretend you don’t remember me?’ I asked her crossly. She made no reply, scanning only the asphalt beside her feet.”
“But it wasn't the asphalt she was trying to draw my attention to,” he reflected. “It was her feet, her bare feet.
“I didn’t look down. I only looked at her and bickered. ‘I saved you,’ I kept insisting, getting more furious every time she didn’t answer back. ‘You held my hand,’ I said, ‘and now I don’t exist?’
“Repeating those words again, I’m unsure whether I even said them or not. I wonder if I made that moment up in my head after the fact itself. But I don’t think I did. It’s so clear in my mind that it’s impossible for me to distrust it.
“‘You held my hand!’ I kept yelling at her, bawling like the spoiled child I was.
“Her face in that instant isn’t clear to me. I wish it were. If I had just looked at her, I may have understood a bit of what was going through her head, or at least what she had been through - or if I had just looked down at her feet.
“Frozen and so close to me, she gradually lifted her head, but refused to look at me. I kept on shouting, full with childish rage and an ungrounded feeling of having been betrayed.”
The sound of the boy swallowing his spit permeated the silence of the small courtyard. Humiliated, he dropped his head.
"Then, without warning, she took my wrist and clutched it. It wasn’t the same as it had been during the protest. Her hands were already warm this time, and she was hurting me. Scurrying past her door, she pulled me into a narrow, gravelly path by the side of her house. I remember the dusty yellow color of the alleyway, the two short buildings fencing it on each side, and ---”
A surge of stutters kept him from finishing his thought. The more he fought against the stammers, the sharper they grew. Parham watched coolly as the boy gasped for his words to be set free. Frustrated, Bahman’s neck steered toward the street. Only Catherine started toward the boy, but before she could stand, there was no more need for her. The boy had already recovered his clogged memory.
“There, there---” he struggled, before picking up again. “That lane was a place for thieves and vagrants. I was convinced of it. There were a few pine trees scattered around, but other than that, it was empty. At a different time of day, a schoolboy could have easily been robbed running from one side of it to the other. If I were alone, I wouldn’t have gone through it either. It was so quiet there, as if something wicked was just waiting to happen if we stayed there for too long.
“I didn’t know why she wanted me there. I didn’t understand. She hadn’t spoken a word to me, you see. Past that first moment of seeing terror in her eyes, she hadn’t even looked at me. It came across as though she was in her own world, panting quietly by herself and looking astray. I didn’t pay any attention to those details then. I only think of them now, still trying to comprehend her state of mind that day. On that day, all that had mattered to me was getting an answer out of her, or just a measly word. She wouldn’t speak though. Her hand was wrapped around my arm and her body was so close, but she still refused to say a word.”
He took a whiff of air into his nose and grimaced, washed adrift by self-pity.
"After every few steps, she paused to catch her breath. I took that time to take her scent in, or to goggle at her spine pushing out of her manteau. When we finally reached the center of the pathway, she pushed me under the shade of a pine tree, fell to her knees across from me, so close. Only then did she finally look at me, and to my ---”
Once more on the verge of stammers, Mehran pressed ahead and forced through the flinching words.
“She drove her face into mine and kissed my mouth, and before I could even collect myself to kiss her back, she was unbuckling my belt, glaring into my eyes, not letting me look away, and, and ---“
He soldiered on.
“She just stared at me as I, and she, and ---“
Looking down onto the concrete, he swallowed his spit again, too overwhelmed to worry about its echo.
“I couldn't understand any of it.”
“Putting it together now,” he added. “I realize that if I had veered from her eyes for just one instant, and followed the curve of her neck down her throat, I would have noticed one crucial detail: She was wearing nothing underneath her manteau, nothing but skin, beaten skin.”
“But I don’t know” he agonized. “I’m still not sure of it.”
Tearing at his lower lip with teeth, he continued. “She stood up, still gaping into my eyeballs, pulled up her trousers, and walked away, as quietly as she had come."
Finally looking away from the concrete, the boy lifted his head and turned to the two men, but refused to look at Catherine. The question in his gawk was lost.
"I went back the next day. It shames me now, but the main reason I went back was because I hoped for the same thing to happen again. It was so new to me, you see.
“I stood across her door for three, four hours that day, but she never came. The day after I did the same, and the same on the next, and for every day of that month. Not seeing her, I thought that maybe I was coming and going on the wrong hours, so I stayed longer each day, so long that sometimes, I would sit there until long past nightfall. I was obsessed.”
“She never showed,” the boy quavered after a moment’s pause.” And it drove me crazy."
Wrapped inside his arms and no longer willing to make eye contact with his companions, the boy spoke as if only to himself, his eyes fixed to an unknown spot in a different time.
"After that, I searched for her everywhere I went, just chasing this shadow. At cafes, I’d prick my ears when I heard others have conversations about people, listening in to every last detail of their gossip, hoping this girl whose I name I didn’t know would be a part of their conversations. How was I to find out whom they were talking about? I didn’t even know the color of her hair, had hardly heard her voice. The tiny details were the ones that I remembered: her calloused hands, boyish fingernails, the meandering bridge of her nose. These don’t sound very attractive, but they were. She was the opposite of the type of person I abhorred. She was herself, unsophisticated and plain.”
“But,” he paused, flashing a cursory glance at Catherine before dropping his eyes. “Who am to say that about her? She was a stranger to me, but she was all I sought.”
A snivel rang through their ears. More then accompanied the solitary sniff, leaving the three with no choice but to listen.
“Months went by, and finally, unable to keep her a secret for any longer, I told someone about her. I didn’t explain to them what had happened between us, or the protest or the time in the alleyway. You’re the first I’ve told that to,” he raised his head. “I only established the fact that she existed, that I had a liking for her and that she had dissolved without a trace.
“They didn't sneer at me, but they took it with a chuckle, as they should have. A boy feeling smitten wasn’t much to devote one’s time to. They were all smitten for someone, and they had all been rejected at some point in their lives. This was the first time I had been rejected. That’s why I was so shaken up, they told me, and in some instances, I believed them, before recalling everything else that had happened.
“I wasn’t devastated because I was rejected, no. I was devastated because she had vanished after ---” he faltered, but fought against it. “After having taken me like that.”
At a loss as to whether he was thankful for the boy or irked, Bahman turned away from the conversation and looked inside of the café, eying the girl inside. She must have been the same age as the boy telling them his story. By how she carried herself, though, she seemed more like an adult compared to the boy outside, who so openly had begun to flail around and wallow. Was this the consequence of different upbringings or different cultures? he wondered. One culture fashioned neurotics, while another assembled machines.
Sneaking a glance at Catherine, he saw in her the girl inside: the upright posture, the composure, confidence, and the graceful lack of interior unrest. In Parham, he saw those traits as well, but his were more wavering, a forced imitation of what the two women innately had. He was of a different world, after all; a different world full with Bahmans, Mehrans, and pretend-Parhams.
“--- why I told others as well.”
Bahman tried to close in on the words he’d missed.
“I began to describe her to others in conversation, wishing somebody would recognize her from the descriptions I was giving, and guide me closer to her. No one knew though. The details I was leaving out weren’t helping either. They didn’t take me seriously because they didn’t know the full story, and the full story was something I couldn’t tell them. It was suffocating - to be chasing for something that doesn't exist, that may have never been anything at all. But this was a person! A person I had seen with my own two eyes, a person whom I had ---"
He didn’t complete his sentence.
"In my frenzy, I even gave her a made-up name,” slipped from his tongue together with a sigh.
“After that, she fully became an icon devised by my imagination.”
Mumbling to himself, he heaved his head upward and at last heeded Catherine’s presence.
"Could I have a cigarette, please?" Mehran asked her.
Her attentive eyes took hold of him. The boy, however, was unable to understand that her empathetic eyes were not intended for him, but for the faceless girl.
Standing up to take it, he lit the cigarette as he stood, and returned to Parham’s side, taking his time with two, quiet drags.
"One day, maybe six months after the fact, as I was walking through the city, trying to shake my body out of its helplessness ---"
He paused to look at Catherine again, possessed by her attentive eyes, and once more misinterpreting their gaze.
"Before that, I never took walks like that. I never went anywhere but to class and then back home. I was a homegrown kid, living in my bubble, never thinking I would break from it.
“Reality,” he philosophized. “Well, it's too real, and it's unnecessary. I understand that now that I’m out of the bubble. If it hadn’t been for that girl, I wouldn’t have needed to go on walkabouts in the city. I’d still be safe, the bubble intact.”
“If it wasn’t that, it would be something else,” Bahman chimed in, his neck sloped, his fingernails between his teeth, his sight swinging from the café to the street.
“I wish it was something else then,” Mehran answered back.
“After her, after that bubble ruptured the way it did,” he weaved his head back toward Catherine. “I found myself at the center of reality, wandering through streets and alleyways, meeting with strangers and spending my days and nights with them, drinking, smoking, idling around.
“I didn’t know whether I was going on these adventures to find her or to lose myself. I still don’t know. Mostly, I just wanted to get away. I couldn't handle the so-called safety of home anymore.
“Anxiety, something I knew nothing of until then, had crept its way in me, and when that anxiety settles, you’re never safe. The love of a mother or a father isn’t enough anymore, and any sort of love that isn’t the love you want begins to feel more like a condemnation.
“I wanted more. I would look at my parents, fully grasp my love for them, and then find myself powerless to express that love, blaming them for it, blaming the bubble rupturings. I turned from a smiling child into this monster! And I robbed my family of their comfort, and my life of its time.
If I could find her, I told myself, I might become a kinder person again, I might gain back everything that had been taken away from me. But she had vanished, and with her, went any sense of selfhood that I had."
From his side, he heard a groan. As he turned toward the protestor, he also caught, in his periphery, sight of Bahman, drawn away by the sound of wind and only half-listening.
At that moment, he understood that he couldn't go on for much longer, but resolved to carry on. So far into his story and in the dark of night, his three spectators could no longer just decamp and let a boy fend off his nerves unaccompanied.
They could, but Mehran knew they wouldn’t.
"The story will end soon, I promise," he complied with their restiveness.
Hearing those words, a wild hack spouted from Bahman’s throat. He didn’t except a close to the boy’s blathering, and he didn’t want the night to end.
"One afternoon, idly wandering through the streets near the university and in the midst of the downtown clamor, I stopped at a kiosk by Enghelab Square to get a cigarette. These kiosks, they have their own lighters attached to them by this thin, dirty string, and just as I pulled the lighter toward the cigarette, I was overwhelmed with the scent of familiar perfume, and immediately, my heart stopped.
“I froze in my place, and my heart beat so fast that I nearly fell to the floor from exhaustion. Still leaping, and my hands shaking, I let go of the lighter and raced toward the scent, which by then had overwhelmed my senses so much that I couldn’t trace it anymore. So I just ran, foraging for it, hoping to come across the real thing again, just wishing that I could find her after so many grueling months, hours, and days of searching.”
Gawking at an imaginary point behind the crown of Bahman's head, Mehran soughed and let his shoulders fall.
"And there she was,” Mehran beamed with empty eyes. “The very face I had memorized and dreamt of and lost sleep over, just perched by the side of the street, letting an throng of people pass her by, her hands wrapped around her stomach, her eyes closed.”
“No, no,” he corrected himself, his face collapsing. “She wasn’t sitting at the side of the street. She was sitting by a gutter.”
Little by little, his left hand, fastened and stationed beside his knee, unlatched, meekly stretching out toward his memory.
"I hurried toward her direction. It was her. I was certain of it.”
“I became so impassioned that, again, I forgot to make out exactly what her posture meant, sitting by a gutter with her like that, with her head down and arms enveloping her body.
“As I dashed toward her, my only concern was figuring out exactly what I was going to say to her. Would I tell her of the many months I spent looking for her? Would I ask for her name point-black, and finally be able to replace the name I had made up for her with something real, something that would definitively drive me closer to the real person? Or would I just grab her wrist like she grabbed mine and run off with her?
“Just as I was pacing toward her and dreaming up things to tell her, I looked up and she was gone. There wasn’t a soul sitting by that gutter.
“My heart thumping, it took a second for me to convince myself that I hadn’t hallucinated her. She had been there. I had seen her with my own two eyes, but I had taken too long to reach her. I cursed myself for it, but I continued running toward the gutter, hoping that my eyes were deceiving me and that she would be there when I reached it.
“She wasn’t there. Of course, she wasn’t.”
The boy paused to catch his breath.
“Then I continued running through the crowd, thinking that, maybe if I were fast enough, I’d reach her no matter how far she’d gone. I pushed through the crowd and kept on running, cursing them for having swallowed her whole. I wanted to smash the faces of every single passerby, loathing them for having made my life difficult. They scoffed at me, they pushed me, they shouted at me as I shoved my way past them, but I couldn’t have cared less. All I wanted was her, and I was willing to do anything to get to her. How was it that in a city full with people, I couldn’t find the one person I wished so hard to find?”
Dropping his head, he breathed in a dragged out whiff of air.
“And then came her scent again,” his voice quivered. “Passing me by, accompanied by the sound of an engine. It was so momentary that I tried to take it in as much as I could, just so I could remember her scent.”
Taking another sniff, he shook his head.
“I can’t remember it,” he sulked. “Not a trace.”
“I turned my head to the street, and there she went, her arms wrapped around a man on a motorcycle, her head still down, her knees shaking with the engine, driving past me so quickly that I couldn’t follow her.
“Not knowing what else to do, I just ran to the middle of the street and stood there. Seeing that tiny, little dot of a motorcycle, I don’t know what went through my mind that I decided to chase after it, and for a minute or two I did, running between honking cars and a lot of angry people. But I had to give up. The world had given me no other choice.
“So I walked back to the gutter again. Maybe I hoped she had seen me and left me a note, or maybe I just went to ---”
He looked up and into Bahman’s eyes.
“I don’t know why I went. I just wanted to go there.”
“But I found something, you see,” he mumbled absent-mindedly, his eyes fixed on the black, empty sky.
Broadening the gap between his thumb and forefinger, he gave out a cynical smile and pressed his one finger against the other.
“A single drop of blood just where she had been sitting.”
“I fell on my knees and stared at it. At first I thought it might have been my blood, so I checked, but it hadn’t come from me.
“I took a step back, and saw another drop right under my feet, and another behind me, and another further down the street.”
“Each drop was thicker than the other,” he muttered, forcing the words out from between his teeth. “Thinking the worst and hoping that it wasn’t true, I followed the trail of blood, and recognized immediately that it followed the exact path of the motorcycle.
“The blood was like a river, continuing on down the street. It was the same path that I had ran through, chasing after her.
“These tiny drops of blood, one after another. The blood of that poor, poor girl.”
“I ran after every drop like a mad man, drop by drop, hoping that it would let me track her down,” he kept on without grasping for air.” I didn’t care if a car hit me on the way. I didn’t care about anything. If I didn’t find her, I might as well be dead, I thought. I didn’t care. I just wanted to find her.
“I ran and ran until the trail of blood came to end. Then I found myself in the middle of some crowded street, full of people and automobiles. Their honks were getting louder, and because I was standing in the middle of an intersection, they were swearing at me more and more.
“I’ve blocked it out. I remember them shouting, but their shouts were like noise, background noise to me realizing exactly what had happened to that girl, where she had gone, and why she was bleeding.”
“That poor girl,” he held back his tears. “Why, just why, would anybody do that to her? There was nothing I could have done. It wasn’t in my power. I was a spoiled boy in a bubble. I never could have stopped her from going to these protests. I never could have stopped them for doing what they did to her.”
Between whimpers, he carried on in fragments.
“Her bare feet, those scars, those few days when she had disappeared, her second disappearance after… How selfish could I have been to think that she had vanished because of me? She wasn’t even concerned with me!
“She hadn’t even seen me that day beside her house. My yelling and shouting had meant nothing. What she did with me after was just a scream for help. It could have been anybody else. It wouldn’t have mattered. She just wanted to scream.”
“I was nothing,” he repeated. “And she had been made into nothing with what they had done to her.”
Hands clutched onto his knees, the boy slanted his body toward Catherine in search of sympathy.
“She was condemned to this fate. Damned. Her whole life was damned. I just watched from my bubble as a girl was made into garbage, her life sucked away by vultures.”
“I’m sorry,” he all at once turned to Parham. “I’ll finish this up so you can go.”
Trying to restrain his grief, he carried on.
“There was no drop left for me to follow past that intersection. I remember just falling to my knees in the middle of the street and weeping, screaming and begging someone to kill me.
“Instead,” he gulped. “They drove me home.”
"That is why I came here," he confessed. "I couldn't handle living in that city anymore, nor could I bear the thought of seeing that girl, or even smelling her ever again. A country that was capable of such cruelty… I didn’t want to be a part of it.
“Who else, I kept thinking, and why not me? Why was I safe when so many weren’t? What made me deserve that safety?
“I couldn’t deal with my thoughts anymore. I knew that I had to go away and start anew. So my poor family let me go, and they sent me here, the safest place they could think of."
"And every day I wonder, even from a million miles away: Where is she now?" the boy remarked, looking at Catherine instead of the empty sky, sniveling but not fishing for a scent; sniveling for himself, his lower lip curled and his eyes obscured by droplets of his own.
The cool air spun through the terrace when he let the atmosphere fall back into silence. The wind made them quiver and cover themselves with their arms. Now that the boy had stopped, it seemed to them that the night was done.
But the boy made one last sound, to himself but for them to hear.
"What else could I have done?" he mumbled, raising his head and immediately dropping it down again.
A hand reached for his shoulder: Parham's.
Then slipped a drawn-out moan from Bahman’s mouth. Overtly scooping up his eyebrows, Bahman yawned and sauntered inside, whistling as he moved to the back of a bar, and then downstairs.
The dim lighting of the interior slid against Parham's eyes as they stalked Bahman. His hands lingering on the boy's shoulder, Parham switched his gaze to the girl inside, Catherine transmuting into a speck in his periphery. His eyes continued their stare, as he removed his hand and placed it back around his chest.
Little by little, Bahman's bald head appeared again, still whistling, his eyebrows still raised, dragging himself back toward them.
Parham’s gaze veered toward him once more, watching.
"I'm sorry," the boy abruptly broke his focus,
"My point was that we all have stories. I might have veered away from my point, and I apologize," the boy whimpered, rustling in his seat and standing up.
"That was mine," he turned to Parham with regret, detecting nothing but black and white in the man’s eyes.
In that instant, the boy knew that the time had come for him to leave, but having taken so much of their time, he did not know how.
He looked behind has shoulder, and saw Bahman's figure in the doorway, large and intimidating, arms drooping, his cheeks pulled between his teeth, and lips drawing air to puff. Why was that man's tragic story met with smiles and laughter, while his was met with hush?
"I shouldn't have said any of it," the boy confessed, peering into Bahman’s eyes and expecting sympathy, receiving nothing in return.
"Don't be," came a voice from behind him. "It was necessary," Parham stamped.
The boy glimpsed at the three of them again, and produced an outlandish bow.
“Th-th-thank you,” he stammered, and sidestepping backwards with hushed, shamefaced nods, he murmured "Goodbye" to them one last time, and disappeared into the city and the night.
As the wind continued to drag the litter into the courtyard, restlessness loomed once more. The boy's footsteps fading, the night's reserve reigned among the three again.
“The girl’s nearly done," Bahman interrupted the quiet, pulling his head back and motioning to the girl inside.
Neither Parham nor Catherine responded.
"That was a nice way to end the night," Bahman forced a guffaw, afraid of the hush,
A smirk emerged on his drenched face.
"Who was he anyway?" he asked, turning to Parham and inadvertently meeting his leer.
In his eyes, he saw his own figure, and trembled.
Addled by the stare, Bahman scowled thinking of the boy again. At some point in story, the boy's self-pity had begun to incense him.
"Weak," he mumbled.
His words caught Catherine's ear.
"What?" she asked, as afraid of the hush as he.
"Nothing," Bahman stumbled, looking at her knees. "That kid just pissed me off."
"He was lying, you know," he added, lazily shaking his head. "I could tell."
Neither person indulged him.
"Just another coddled boy thinking he has something to say," Bahman persisted.
Grasping that no one wished to hear him speak, he stopped and went inside.
Watching through the window, Parham saw the plump figure say something to the girl inside, a coy chortle following whatever comment had made.
Going behind the bar again, Bahman snatched his coat from the hanger. As he proceeded to put it on, Parham noticed the man’s unswerving stare, watching Catherine pensively, chomping down at his lowered lips, with longing leaping in his eyes.
Parham's own eyes then swerved toward the girl inside, counting his money, and unsuspecting of his gawk.
"Do you have to be here for her to close?" Catherine asked him sharply.
"No," Parham answered composedly, turning to her but briefly, and locking eyes on Bahman's figure once again.
"Let's go then," Catherine urged.
"You know, that boy ---" she tried to add, before being interrupted by Bahman’s approach. She suppressed a gasp, but raised her head to look at him, Parham noticing the faint quiver in her lips.
"Go with her," he abruptly commanded Bahman.
Bahman’s words clotted and he began to shake again. Catherine too made a jolt.
"Take her home," Parham repeated, eyes fastened on Bahman's frenzied blinking.
"You're not coming?" Catherine asked, pretending to have confused the proposition, her self-possession shedding with every one of her subdued stutters.
Parham never once looked at her, leaving his eyes’ cruel smile for Bahman and he alone.
"Take her," he said again.
In the white of Parham’s eyes, Catherine's figure had obscured, spouting words that to him seemed as though they were of a different world and language. He did not care to listen to her.
His eyes instead remained focused on Bahman, as he watched his body splinter before welding back together, his gut preventing light from leaving the entryway.
“Take her before I change my mind,” he ordered.
Then came a series of whimpers, and then he heard her heels clink away.
"Why don’t you?” he teased Bahman, cornering him with his eyes.
“Yours for the taking,” he scoffed.
All at once, the jester's mighty figure collapsed and ebbed from sight, vanishing with a rabid dash, letting the light escape.
Now, all that remained in Parham's sight was an open doorway, under-lit with dins of Spanish orange cascading to his feet.
From the far end of the street, came the clamor of runaway heels meeting Falstaff’s thirsting howl. Not a simper dared to leave his mug. Instead, he turned his head toward the closed window, and looked inside. His eyes beamed, his limbs stealthily twitched and quivered, and the rich deep red of his mouth swelled and swelled.
There, before his eyes, was his story - juvenile, splendid, erect on its own two feet.
There, confined between those walls, were his words.
Philip Harrison is an emerging talent based in Bristol, England. Having written his first novel ‘There’s More To Life in 2012, Philip went on to write several children’s books including The Adventures Of Fluffy Monkey Series, the Draw Your Own Adventure series, Bounce, Children’s Bible Stories: Noah, Mathew The Hero, The Funny Honey, Where’s Ted? and Dot. For more information, please visit: www.philiprharrison.webs.com
BOOM! Another explosion. The sand, mud and dust all around was difficult to see. Scrambling up the bank he could just make out the bodies running off to safety. The temptation to chase after them, to hide, to cower, gripped Zak’s mind. He turned and realised that could never happen, he had to go back for her.
Zak desperately wiping his eyes, calling out, stumbled back in to the furore. They were getting closer as another grenade exploded close to the left of Zak throwing him back in to the dirty sand. His ears ringing, he struggled back to his feet. That was when he heard her, her screams, piercing through the battle torn beach. Zak rushed towards her stricken voice, back towards the incoming tide. Panic set in as the splashing of water and heaving of the oars rowing away from the shore muffled the sounds of the prisoner’s hopeless screams.
The last boat to leave the pillaged land drifted in to the fog, the other boats had long gone with their captives in toe. “ELIZABETH, ELIZABETH…” Zak reached the water’s edge running towards the shadowy figure of the invaders vessel. The echoing despair of Elizabeth is the last thing Zak hears as darkness surrounds him when a final explosion sent Zak collapsing, falling down on to the stricken coastline.
Slowly, his eyes opened, blinking to adjust to the sun’s bright rays streaming through the old cottage door. A pain seared through his left side jolting his body upright as he wearily pulled himself to a sitting position on his bed. Surveying his familiar surroundings Zak’s memory brought back the horrific realisation of his loss. He stumbled out of bed, frantically searching for his clothes, now ignoring the pain wracking his bandaged up torso. Zak knew he had to get across the water quickly if he had any chance of saving his beloved Elizabeth. Rushing through the green fields, the baking sun beating down on his worried brow, Zak head back towards the coast, towards his old friend’s boat house.
Concern for his mentor grew as Zak maneuvered around the wreckage of several wooden vessels dotted around the beach as he approached the seafarer’s work place.
‘Gus, Gus,’ Zak called as he neared the dilapidated beach hut.
‘Gus, you gotta help me, they’ve got Liz’.
Zak ran through the sand, up the small steps and noticing the old wooden door open bursts through in to a small room filled with wrenches, tools and odds and ends of every description. Going from room to room and up the short spiral wooden staircase to the upper deck Zak frantically searched for his friend. He pulled up a window to scan the beach and noticed something further down the beach.
It was unclear what he could see at first, so Zak cautiously clambered along the sand banks. With some relief, Zak, noticing Gus working on a small rowing boat, called over to him as he approached the old sea dog.
‘Hey Gus, you’re ok, you’re ok’
‘Zak, you survived, thank goodness’
Gus embraced his younger friend in his great arms.
‘Are you hurt?’
‘Just my ribs I think, the medics must have found me as I woke up at my place. Gus, they‘ve got Liz, I need to go after them.’
‘Those savages have taken a lot of our maidens’ Gus muttered regrettably. ‘This is the third time now this semester. We gotta do something.’
‘Were you hurt at all?’ Zak asked concerned.
‘I wasn’t here, only got back this morning. My hut survived, but all of my boats have been blown to smithereens, all but this one.’ Gus sighed waving tiredly to the patched up craft sitting sorrowfully in the sand.
‘Well, let’s go, we haven’t got a moment to lose’, Zak replied urgently as he started pushing the boat towards the water’s edge.
‘Now, hold on just two minutes will you, we can’t go rushing in blind an’ all, we need to think, plan, prepare properly. We won’t last long against those invaders with courage alone.’
‘Look, let me check this over’ Gus said holding on to the boat, ‘we’ll go back to my hut, get provisions and work out what to do’.
Soon, the distant land came in to view. The cool evening air breathes softly on the men’s conscientious brows. Zak and Gus cautiously drifted slowly towards the desolate beach. As they approached the apparent empty coast line the two would-be rescuers steered their craft towards an area of the land covered in jungle.
After hiding their boat with vines and foliage the pair entered the dense wooded area to cover the approach to their rival’s village. The humidity dripping through their clothes, Zak and Gus determinedly made their way through the forested undergrowth. After what appeared to be many hours clambering through the woods the sounds and lights of the invaders homestead grew ever more apparent.
Gus motioned to Zak to stop as the cheering and celebrations of the pillagers filled the air.
‘Right, we need to find where the prisoners are being held’ Gus whispered to Zak pulling him behind a large Oak. Zak viewed the clearing some metres from the edge of the jungle. An array of adults and children sat on tree stumps, logs and stones surrounding an animal roasting slowly on a large fire. Others mingled in the darkening evening in and around the many huts and mud shelters within the community.
Zak followed Gus back in to the depths of the woods and navigated their way around the outskirts of the colony.
‘The captives will be guarded I suspect’ Gus seethed, wiping the sweat from his brow. ‘When we have found where they are kept, I’ll make a diversion and you see if you can find Liz and anyone else they’ve taken’.
Zak climbed a nearby tree to scout the area. Climbing to near the top of the large Wimba, he managed to see the village about half a mile from their position. It was difficult to see in the dark of the night, but Zak could see the torches dotted around the campsite lighting up the village’s homes. There were two huts separated from the others with what looked like a large man standing in front of each entrance glowing in the torches flames. Zak noticed the shelters where he thought the prisoners must be held were around one hundred yards from the jungle edge.
‘I think I know where they are held’ Zak called to Gus shinning back down the bark.
The pair diligently approached the village through the dense jungle growth. After some time of hacking through leaves and climbing over roots the camp came in to view. The moon shone bright down from a clear glittery sky. The smoke from the feast rose and dispersed in to the cool night air. Gus pulled Zak close to him behind the shrubbery hiding their existence from the invaders community. Gus’ attention was alerted to activity near the huts with the guards. He motioned to Zak to focus on what was happening. The fire from the torches lighting the mud shelters flickered gently in the night breeze. Zak noticed more clearly now the guards by the entrances, several of them talking and laughing. Two guards from each hut proceeded out dragging distressed, gagged prisoners. Zak scoured the desperate faces trying to locate his precious Elizabeth. Unable to see if Liz was part of the struggling captives being led away by the warriors, Zak proceeded to move towards the compound.
‘Hold on a minute’, Gus whispered through gritted teeth, pulling Zak back to the forest ground.
‘It’s no good, charging in there like a crazy man, they’ll take you down before you get to the first hut... then where will we be, or Liz for that matter?’ Gus whispered urgently.
‘Look, let’s keep to the plan, I’ve got these’ Gus said showing the flint he took out of his pocket. ‘Wait here, wait for my signal, when you see the smoke and fire from over there,’ Gus pointed to the far left side of the communal settlement, ‘you can go in the huts and search for Liz. The guards will be the first to notice the fires I make so wait until they have left their posts. You’re not gonna have long though until the other guards arrive, so be as quick as you can.’
‘What if she isn’t there?’ Zak replied concerned.
‘I’m gonna go back through the jungle and see if I can find where they have taken the other prisoners, with any luck one of us will find her. Meet me back at the boat as soon as you can, I’ll wait there for you… good luck buddy…’
‘Yeah, good luck Gus, stay safe’.
Zak watches his friend disappear back through the trees and branches, his movements blending in with the creatures and wildlife of the jungle.
Turning back to keep watch on the huts, Zak noticed the activity there had died down and the view that greeted him returned to two guards standing quietly outside the two shacks. He presumed there must still be captives inside the huts or else the men would have left with their companions.
Zak settled back against a tree, trying to calm himself and prepare for this daring rescue. The distinct sounds of his environment soothed his troubled mind while he took in his surroundings. Hearing more than seeing the inhabitants of this earthly home, Zak wondered what a different world the animals who co-exist in this natural paradise live in. Hunting and scavenging, securing their nests and dens from raiders. Searching for food and trying to survive, it appeared there were great many similarities to us than Zak realised…
‘GET THE WATER!’
Zak bolted upright. Blearily rubbing his face, cursing to himself for falling asleep. He peered out to the scene in front of him, the entrance to the huts had been left unguarded as Gus had said. The smoke was billowing up in to the night sky, a roaring fire was lighting up the forest with eerily shadows dancing through the trees.
‘Now’s my chance’ Zak thought not knowing how long he dropped off for. Cautiously creeping around the outskirts of the compound, he slowly approached the nearest hut. Zak felt the heat of the torches prickle his sweaty skin as he entered the dark interior.
‘Liz…Liz…are you here?’
Zak stumbled around in the dimming light, the darkness of the night in the shack engulfing the glow of the torches. Conscious of the shouts and screams of the now panicked villagers trying to contain Gus’ lethal strategy, Zak frantically searched around for any survivors.
‘Where is she? Where is she?’ Finding the hut empty but for some loosened rope and twine, Zak peered out from the edge of the doorway to check the coast was clear. The smoke from the enraging fire was swallowing the whole of the pillagers society, flames leaping and biting, destroying everything in its relentless path.
Zak swiftly stole over to the other unguarded cabin and passed silently inside. Knowing the layout of the previous shack, he maneuvered more confidently in this one, whispering and searching for his beloved. Finding more rope and binds scattered around the earthy floor, Zak began to fear the worse. Now groping around in the darkness on his hands and knees, cold sweat running down his despairing face, Zak explored as much of the inside of the hut as he could, searching around the rim of the structure, he thought he had lost his love forever.
As Zak turned, thinking he had scoured the whole of the area, his right foot brushed something. Zak reached back to throw off what he thought was some rope that he got caught up in. He felt, however, not the twine as he was expecting, but some soft material. With restrained hope keen to flow through his veins, he felt along the material finding it clinging to a body…
‘Liz, Liz, can you hear me?’
Zak lifted the unconscious figure to find Elizabeth hanging from his arms. Her face covered in mud and blood, with a large gash on the left of her forehead.
‘Liz, wake up,’ Zak shook her lightly. He carefully placed her back down on the ground to feel her pulse. An overwhelming relief swept over him as the blood continued to circulate through his lover’s body. Trying to think quickly, he thought of carrying her out of there when he heard something.
Keeping deadly still he heard the sound again, realising it was coming from somewhere in the shelter Zak tried to locate the source of the sound. He found another body further behind where Elizabeth was lying.
‘Hey, are you ok?’ Zak breathed shaking the figure awake.
‘Wh… What’s happened? Who are you?’
‘It’s ok, I’m here to help you, can you stand?’
‘I… I think so, just give me a minute…’
‘We don’t have a minute, we have to get out of here, can you help me with Liz?’ Zak whispered hurriedly helping the young woman to her feet.
The female lent on her rescuer trying to steady herself and clear her mind.
‘Where are the others? There were loads of us in here.’
‘Don’t know, we haven’t got time to find out, they’ll trap us in here if we don’t leave soon.’
Zak pulled the still unconscious Elizabeth off the ground and with the captives help managed to get her over his shoulder. The trio swiftly left the thatched prison and scuttled in to the jungle and away from the slaver’s compound.
Feeling relieved to be away from the village but still anxious as they make their way through the trees, Zak’s thoughts wander to the fate of the other prisoners and what has happened to Gus. After some time of struggling through the undergrowth at what felt like a safe distance, the troupe stopped for a rest. Liz had also started to come round, murmuring and slurring as they made their way back to the boat.
‘Liz, Liz, can you hear me?’ Zak asked concerned.
‘Oh, Zak’ Liz cried blinking and throwing her arms around her saviour. ‘You came back for me!’
‘Of course I did, I was never gonna leave you to those barbarians.’ Zak replied helping Liz to her feet. ‘We gotta keep going though, when they find you have gone, it won’t take them long to work out what has happened.’
Together the three weary bodies scrambled and clambered through the forested area determined to get back to their craft, back to safety.
They eventually came out of the jungle on to the shore, further down from where they had previously hid the rowing boat.
Recognising the coast line, Zak started running down the beach away from the two exhausted women.
‘Come on,’ Zak beckoned, ‘it’s down here, I remember where we hid it.’
As Zak approached the boats hiding place he saw movement in the trees.
‘Oh no’ he thought, ‘we are so close to getting away.’ Zak had come too far to get stopped now, he gathered what strength remained from his drained body and walked towards the woods preparing to fight for their freedom.
‘Hey’ the figured called.
Gus rushed out, seeing his friend approach him.
‘You made it back, did you find her?’ Gus caught Zak up in a great bear hug relieved to see his companion again.
Relieved to see his mentor, Zak pointed back down the beach to the two females stumbling towards them.
‘What a relief, after I started the fire, I looked for other prisoners but there was so much panic in the village, I had to get out of there. At least Liz is ok.’
‘Why didn’t you get the boat out, ready for us?’ Zak asked pulling the leaves and vines off their vessel.
‘I thought it was better to wait in hiding for you, in case someone found it and lose our only escape from this god forsaken land.’
The two men pulled the wooden craft through the sand in to the inviting water. Helping their liberated captives in to the boat, the rescue party propelled themselves away from the jungle, away from the invaders, away from despair and towards hope, safety and home.
Zak sat back on the boat as Gus insisted on rowing. His beloved Liz asleep in his arms, safe once more. The other lady who escaped with them sleeping curled up at the other end of the craft. The early morning sun glimmered on the crystal waters as they headed back towards their motherland. As Gus steered them towards their homestead, Zak watched the dwindling land floating away from them, the flames burning bright as the fire engulfed the barbarian’s realm.
I was born in Yorkshire, England many years ago, but now live on Merseyside where I write stories and work as a support worker. My stories have appeared on various literary websites and in print.
The house where I live is cold and I have no mother. She died when I was five, although I never saw her body, and nobody had told me she was ill. One Thursday morning Peter came into my room and said that she had died in the night, and I would not have to go to school that day. I don’t remember a funeral, but perhaps I have forgotten about it.
I remember I spent that day reading poetry, I was learning poems by Robert Louis Stevenson at that time; the poems seem easy now, but then they were difficult.
“Whenever the moon and stars are set/ Whenever the wind is high.”
Peter is my dad, my father. He makes me call him daddy, but I hate him so in my head he is just Peter, an acquaintance.
Even before my mother died he wanted me to read to him, and now that she is dead it is every night. He has a study, where the dining room used to be, and every evening I sit in front of him and recite whatever he has asked me to learn. I am ten now, so do adult stuff; Tennyson and Robert Browning mostly, and the poem about me;
“Do you remember an inn Miranda? Do you remember an inn?”
He sits and listens; sprawled back in his armchair, sometimes tapping along to the rhythm of the words.
I asked him why I had to do this every night.
“None of my friends have to do this.” I told him.
“What friends? I thought you didn’t have friends. Why don’t you ever invite them to tea.”
I would never invite them to my house. What might he make them do?
“Just Rosemary. We sit together in lessons and at lunchtime. She is beautiful.”
I can see her with her blonde hair and pigtails, and her don’t care attitude which makes me love her even more.
“You need to learn poems.” Peter tells me, “one day all the trees will disappear, there will be no books and no computers. If we don’t learn then what will happen to all our great writing?”
I could smell him as he talked; sweat, and lavender. And then when he makes me go to bed with him, and kiss him and touch his willy, I can smell him even more strongly. And then he makes me wipe him up, but the smell still won’t go away. I can smell him on me no matter how many times I wash myself afterwards.
Even when I am at school I can smell him; on my clothes, in the air that I breathe. I am surprised that nobody else can smell him on me, but perhaps they can and just don’t say anything. Everybody does seem to avoid me after all apart from Rosemary, even Mrs Baxter my form teacher seems to shy away from me. Perhaps it will be different next year when I start at comprehensive school, although I am not sure why it should.
Peter told me that the worst thing for a man was to have a hard-on and it not be relieved. He doesn’t have a wife to do that anymore, so it has to be me. Did mummy really do that for him? If she hadn’t died would he have let me alone? Sometimes I hate her for dying and leaving me alone with Peter.
We had a lesson at school, last year; it was March and still cold. Sheffield is often the coldest place in the whole country Peter told me. And today was freezing, even though the sun was shining, with frost on the windows and duffel coats in the cloakroom. I sat with Rosemary as usual whilst Mrs Baxter told us about boys and girls, men and women. How they were different. She told us about periods and pubic hair. Everyone sat quietly listening. Mrs Baxter told us about sex; about what men and women do in bed.
“But why do they do that?” asked Marie from the front seat.
Mrs Baxter asked if anybody knew.
“To make men more comfortable. To stop them being hard” I told the class. Some children laughed, but Mrs Baxter just looked at me.
“And the cheers and jeers of the young muleteers” I recited under my breath, “Who hadn’t got a penny/ And who weren’t paying any.”
She looks at me sometimes, Mrs Baxter. When we are sitting in the classroom doing some writing. I look up and her eyes are upon me. And sometimes she bends over me; she dresses very prettily, and a lot of the girls want to be like her, with her beautiful dresses and her bangles and bracelets which clink dully when she moves her arms to make a point, or when she laughs at something one of the boys says. I want her to take me away and look after me, like Mrs Honey in “Matilda”.
Once I was late putting the craft stuff away; I get so engrossed with what I am doing; it is the only time I can be free of my thoughts, even the everlasting poetry that runs through my head stops for a moment. I had made a model using coloured glass and cardboard; and it stood squat on my desk. People used to ask me what I made or what my pictures were of, but now they don’t bother.
“You are such a good artist. I hope your father is very proud.”
She was stood next to me; I hear a clunk of her bracelet, and smelt something, probably her hairspray. Why did she have to mention Peter? Why spoil things?
“Yes.” I said. Actually he had called me a “harlot” last night, after I lain with him, a word I didn’t know, so I looked it up. And he never looked at my art, although I kept everything I made and put it in the spare room where even Peter would not go; rather standing in the doorway to call me to him.
“Is it lonely for you?” Mrs Baxter asked. “You don’t seem to have any friends, and you don’t have any brothers or sisters.”
“I have Rosemary” I said.
“Who is Rosemary?” she asked.
I said nothing and put the rest of my stuff away and went out into the cold yard. I wished she would delve deeper. Ask about my father, but she never did. Not ever.
She told me she was an artist, and that she lived alone. I was new to Sainsbury’s; I worked in the freezers, and my lips had started to peel alarmingly because it was so cold down there.
“What is your name?” I asked, her although I already knew.
“Like in that poem, “do you remember an inn Miranda, do you remember an inn?”
She smiled slightly and walked off.
We had been sat together in the canteen. Her hair was dark, and she was voluptuous and beautiful, but dreadfully pale, always pale. She rarely talked to anyone, but rather sketched in the green notebook that always was close to her side, or she played games on her mobile ‘phone. She had a northern accent, which stood out amongst all the southern accents of her colleagues who lived locally. I had just finished my History degree and had come back home to London whilst I decided what to do next.
Miranda fascinated me; I love artists anyway, turning paper, ink, iron and plaster into something beautiful. It is such a fragile thing; the decision an artist makes to create something, but with Miranda it was everything about her. I used to dream about her and every time I saw her I wanted to take her in my arms and take away all her misery.
I used to ask her about her art. She was very cautious at first, thinking that I was just after her, and yes I did want her in my life. But she could also see that I was genuinely interested in her work as well. She showed me some of her sketches which were distorted and surreal, but I could see how good they were. I thought she was wonderful, if I could not be an artist at least I could be with one, inspire her and help her.
She was difficult; often not talking to me for days on end and blanking me in work. She would not answer my calls; and then would ring me at three in the morning, sounding drunk and shouting at me for some slight I had not been aware of. But we also went out together; we took one of those boats down The Thames and we visited the free and cheaper sites of London. I have lived in London all my life, but she had only left Yorkshire a year ago and so it was all new to her, and I loved showing her around. And then arm in arm walking along the river I would think we were in a normal relationship.
Miranda came to my house for tea once; met my parents and my sister Alishia. She was quiet and nervous; even more so than usual. But it was intimidating I guess, and I was excited that she had gone to my house and met my family, I had been scared that she would find an excuse not to go.
“Are you sure?” asked Alishia later.
“No, but there is nobody else, and I want her in my life. I love her.”
And then she invited me back to her flat. I was asking about her art and so she said I could see some of her work. We had known each other over six months at this point and so we were hardly rushing into anything. There was clutter everywhere; sculptures made of steel, welding equipment, paper with sketches on them and canvases up right against the wall. But no books, not one. I always judge people on what books they have, and how many. But she had none, not even art books.
“I hate books” she told me, “don’t want them in my house”.
But I didn’t care. I started to have a daydream of introducing her to books and maybe reading to her in the early hours, but it never happened.
We drank tea and listened to music; something loud and angry, probably Motorhead who she liked a great deal. She said they drowned out her thoughts. She played music most of the time; from when she got up to when she went to bed, falling asleep to the loud guitars and thud of the drums. As we sat there I wanted to kiss her, but did not dare. And I got the impression that she did not want that. We sat close together but not touching, there was a strange smell coming from her, could it be fear?
“It is late” she said, “later than I thought. You had better stay.”
“Shall I sleep on your couch?”
“It is okay, I trust you. You can sleep in my bed.”
And so I did. We lay close together, but facing in different directions, hardly saying anything, Miranda’s music swirling about our heads. Around us were large sculptures which we had had to snake through to get into bed.
It got dark and I dozed, and then I was awake with her arms about me, caressing me and making me come into her generous hands.
We never talked about it afterwards, and nor the subsequent times; it was something we did in darkness and never to be mentioned. And it was all about me, she was surprised and defensive when I turned to her to give her pleasure. I am never sure if she ever enjoyed it. If I did bring her to orgasm she was very discreet about it.
She gradually told me about her father; what he made her do. She sat next to me on the sofa, stoney-faced as she talked.
“Did you not tell anyone?”
“No. I almost told my teacher Mrs Baxter. But in the end I couldn’t. She had to ask and she didn’t. And nothing would have happened anyway. All men are beasts in the end. I have to live with what happened. I have nothing to do with him anymore. I stole his money and left.”
I loved her, you have to remember that; I loved her more than anybody I have ever known. I wanted to make her better. Love her and make her forget the past. I got a job as a teacher in a comprehensive school whilst she carried on with her job at Sainsbury and with her art. I think we were happy, but she was still moody and we often rowed, and I would spend a few days with my family. The sex still was same. It was mysterious, and strange. After one of her angry moods when we had barely spoken for a week I asked her why it had to be that way.
“You won’t cure me” she told me; “what Peter did to me. That will never go away. I am hollow inside. I am broken. You need somebody normal.”
“No I need you and you need me. I love you, I love you as you are. I will do anything for you. You are worth it. I love you with all my heart.”
She looked at me, not totally believing what I was saying.
We got married. There was nobody else for me. And she seemed happy with me, well she said yes to my proposal as we sat on the sofa drinking wine. She still had her dark moods, but I knew she would become happier once she was secure in a loving relationship. It was just a short service in a registry office with my parents and sister and a couple of my friends. Motorhead played as she walked down the aisle in the blue dress she liked to wear; she looked defiant and lost. Two hours earlier she had been working on a construction and clearly wished she was still there.
And then she became pregnant. We had only been married a year but we were not always careful; it is difficult when she would not talk about sex, pretend it did not happen.
“Are you okay” with this I asked her, “the baby.”
She just shrugged, and touched her tummy which barely showed what it contained. “It is there. Not much I can do.”
Not technically true, but she did not agree with abortion, and even if she had I could not imagine her submitting to that intrusion.
Nine months later our daughter Naomi was born. Miranda was cold with her from the start. She did what she needed to do; fed her, clothed her, changed her nappies, but there was little love that I could see. Fortunately, my sister Alishia loved her and was always there, and so were my parents. Miranda was soon back at work, and when not working at Sainsbury she worked on her art, some of which she managed to exhibit and sell. Her work was getting more ambitious and strange; I did not understand it, I wanted something safe and commercial that would sell and my friends and family would like.
And then as Naomi got older, to my surprise Miranda bought her books; children’s poetry mostly. And she started to read to her. I was pleased. Naomi was three by now and at last my wife was starting to bond with her. True she did little else with her other than read, but at least there was that. I was not always at home in the evenings or if I was I would be marking upstairs. It therefore took me a long time to realise that it was just the same few poems that Miranda read to her and Naomi did not have a say in the matter, nor did Naomi seem to enjoy this time with her mother, on the contrary she looked frightened and cross.
One day, they came to me whilst I was in my study marking some abominable History essays.
“Listen to this” Miranda said with a nervous smile. Naomi looked unhappy; she had just turned four. She looked at me pleadingly, and I did not know what to do.
“Come on” Miranda told my daughter, and Naomi started to recite.
“They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,/ In a Sieve they went to sea:/ In spite of all their friends could say,/ On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,/ In a Sieve they went to sea!”
And she went through the whole blessed poem, without happiness or joy, and when she stumbled, Miranda would get cross and you could see she was just holding herself from slapping Naomi. At last it was over.
“Wasn’t that good?” Miranda asked pleadingly.
We talked all night.
“You need help” I said, “I know what you have been through, but that is our daughter and you are scaring her.”
But she would not get help. I got worried when I was out of the house and I left them together alone. Alishia got a boyfriend in France and went over to be with him. My parents came over when Miranda was at work, but there was still long periods when Miranda and Naomi were alone together, and I did not like it.
One day I came home early from work. There was supposed to be a meeting of the history department but it was cancelled at Mark, the head of our department was feeling poorly. I walked into our house, and I could hear mumbling, it was Naomi speaking slowly and unhappily.
“Rats, they fought the dogs and killed the cats/ and bit the babies in the cradles….”
And on and on. And when she stumbled, there would be a slap and I would hear my darling daughter cry, terrified.
They must be used to me by now. I go to the zoo most days. It isn’t a big one, more a park with animals in it, but then Alfreton is only a small town in the middle of nowhere. It is just a fiver to go in, and I have enough money what with my art and the money that my ex-husband sends me.
He threw me out in the end. He said that I was not safe and his first duty of care of was to Naomi. I suppose in the end he had to choose her over me, despite all his protestations of everlasting love and his claims that he would do anything for me. People say these things, but such statements do not mean anything. Even Peter would say that he loved me, that I was his only one, but he carried on abusing me. At least I have never pretended to love anyone, well only Rosemary, and apparently she did not exist.
I discovered the animals by accident when walking one April afternoon, enjoying the sun and thinking about my latest sculpture. I was going a way I had never been before and I saw a sign for Burdett Stately Home which was open to the public. I gave the woman at the entrance some money and enjoyed looking around it, but then behind it I came across the mini zoo which one pays separately for. It is shabby, and I am sure one day it will either be closed down, or they will find a better use for the land more in keeping with modern mores. But until then I will keep on going.
There are a few animals; some llamas, a rather sad looking lynx and a pond with penguins. But most people come to see the gorillas. They live in a large enclosure made of wood with lots of toys and apparatus for them to play with and swing on. There are ten gorillas in the enclosure; the adult male, his harem of three wives and six children. At first they were just a mass of apes; hairy bodies making strange noises and racing about. Surprisingly quickly however, I began to recognise them and discover their personalities. I also got to know their routines; when they are fed, when the children play and when they have a rest. There are keepers too, but I am not interested in them and cannot tell them apart.
I tend to do my art in the morning, and then go and look at the gorillas in the afternoon until the animal park closes at six and then I go home and listen to music and maybe telephone Naomi if she will speak to me. At night I dream about the gorillas; the way they are so close and kind to each other. I dream that I am one of them; loved and hugged, and made to feel as if I am kin. Sometimes when I am there, watching them, I am tempted to go into the enclosure and join them, and perhaps one day I will.
I have learned a lot from the gorillas; things that I could not understand otherwise. About playing with friends, looking after children, how families are organised, about what we should and should not eat. But most importantly I have learned about love, being accepted because you have been born, no matter what you do subsequently, about love being undemanding and unconditional.
Perhaps that is why gorillas are kept locked away, safe in cages whilst the true beasts can roam free and hurt those that they should love and cherish.
Tannara Young is the creator of the world of Idhua: fourteen kingdoms surrounding a vast magical forest. She writes short fiction and novels exploring the people, landscapes and magic of Idhua. Her work has also appeared in The Mythic Circle, The Great Tomes Series and at NewMyths.com and Smashwords. Tannara lives in central California on the coast of the wild Pacific Ocean, near the majestic redwood forests. When she is not writing, she loves to take long walks through these inspiring landscapes, dreaming up her next tale. Please come and visit her at tannarayoung.com.
A retelling of the Grimm’s Fairy Tale
In the weeks that followed, Henrick discovered that talkative Adelbert had spread the story of his “cure,” and the villagers were unfazed by learning the name and background of their hermit. Some would even call friendly greetings when he came into town and he was even waylaid by the midwife who wanted to know if he could keep a particular eye out for elantra or blood-stop root, when he was foraging in the woods.
Then there was Marlis. She appeared at the door of his cottage one morning with a basket of seedcakes and a bottle of currant wine. “Father and I were hoping you would come to supper again,” she said. “And Adaline too, though I think she just wants to get another chance to stroke your bearskin. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she leaves you alone. Please do come – perhaps tomorrow?”
Henrick agreed and, in lieu of being able to trim his beard and put on his festival best, he caught a brace of fat pheasants and gathered a bowl of wild strawberries for his hosts. That summer he became a frequent guest at their home, helping Adelbert with the garden and learning to follow Adaline’s disjointed conversation and tolerate her ongoing fascination with his bearskin.
But mostly he went to see Marlis. He admired her serenity and patience with her father and sister. He respected the way she fit herself and her family into the village despite their eccentricities. He loved to make her dimples appear as she laughed, or to find her surprises in the woods – a rare flower, a hollow stone filled inside with crystals, a wild rose to transplant into her garden.
His impatience to be done with the bearskin mounted – and once the winter snows curtailed his ability to visit the town his restlessness increased. He spent long hours planning how he might court Marlis once he was free of the bearskin. To occupy himself, he built and carved a chest, drawing on memories of his mother’s wedding chest where she had kept all her best linens.
He wanted to go into the village the first day that the way was passable. But he made himself wait until the thaw was truly upon the forest and he had been able to gather the first snow-mushrooms sprouting up where the rich dark earth reappeared from the melting snow banks.
Marlis was delighted with the gift of mushrooms and insisted that he stay, though they had not been expecting company. Adaline looked wane and sat by the window staring out into the night. Marlis shrugged, saying. “She’s like that sometimes.” Adelbert had been sick in the winter but was recovering. He chattered to Henrick happily from his armchair by the fire, wrapped in blankets and shawls and sipping from a cup of mulled wine.
After several hours, Marlis left the room to help Adelbert to bed. When they were gone, Henrick turned to find Adaline examining him from across the room.
“You like Marlis,” she said as he met her gaze.
Henrick shrugged uncomfortably. “Well, yes, she’s –-”
“She’s my sister,” Adaline said, stressing the possessive.
“I don’t want to take her away from you,” Henrick said.
“When we were little the baker’s boy put a frog in her hair and made her cry. I hexed him to have warts on his face. She’s my sister, only I get to make her cry.”
“I don’t want to make her cry,” said Henrick. “But Adaline, why do you want to make her cry? Wouldn’t it be nicer if she was happy?”
Adaline considered this. “Sure, a long as she let me hex people.”
“Why do you want to hex people?” asked Henrick.
Henrick felt at a loss. “Well sure they are, but that doesn’t mean you should hex them.”
“Why not? You killed people who annoyed you.”
“I was at war. I killed enemies, people who were trying to kill me or to hurt people I had sworn to protect.” Henrick pushed aside memories of those times when their orders had not been so clear as he described to Adaline.
Adaline tilted her head to the side. “So I should only hex people who are hexing me?”
“That would be more fair,” agreed Henrick, wondering if this conversation was a mistake.
“But if they annoy me, I can annoy them back,” concluded Adaline.
“Well,” said Henrick. As he considered how to advocate the idea of self-restraint, Marlis came back into the room.
“I’ve decided to let you marry Henrick after all,” Adaline told her.
“Ady!” Marlis flushed bright red.
Adaline continued unperturbed. “When I go off to be a great sorceress and rule the world, you will need someone to keep people from putting frogs in your hair.”
Marlis shot Henrick a look of embarrassed amusement. “Thank you for thinking of me, Ady, but it’s been years since anyone has tried to put a frog in my hair.”
“That’s because they’re afraid of me,” said Adaline, serenely.
As Henrick prepared to take his leave, Marlis followed him out. “I hope Adaline didn’t make you uncomfortable.”
“I’m getting to understand her better,” said Henrick. “And... I’d be happy to keep people from attacking you with frogs.”
Marlis smiled. Then, “Wait,” she said. “I almost forgot.”
She ducked back into the house and returned with a covered basket. “I have something for you,” she said. Shy, she held it out, dropping her eyes and hunching her shoulders a little. He opened the lid. Inside was a white shirt, embroidered with blue and red. Beneath it he could see another folded garment of blue-dyed linen.
“I wanted you to have something to wear when you were finally able to take off that bearskin,” she said. “It’s dyed with the madder and woad you brought me.” Her cheeks turned pink as she spoke. Henrick felt his heart lurch.
“Marlis--” he said. “Thank you. I can’t say how much this means to me.”
Her flush grew deeper. “Will you be staying in Fernwell after?” she asked.
Henrick felt reckless. “That depends,” he said.
“On whether there is someone who wants me to stay.”
She met his eyes, her own eyes as wide as her sister’s for once. She put up her hand and stroked his wild beard. Her dimple appeared as she smiled. “I would kiss you if you weren’t so dirty.”
He smiled too. “Can I claim that kiss later?”
“I hope you will.” She turned to go; then all at once turned back. Before he was aware of her intention, she grabbed his arm, stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his cheek above his wild beard. Then she fled, embarrassed.
The spring passed far too slowly for Hendrick, yet eventually the time to meet Gottilf arrived. Before he left town, Henrick brought a bouquet of lilacs and wild iris to Marlis. He showed her the basket that he carried with her gift inside and the large bar of soap and pair of sheers he had added to it. As they lingered outside the gate smiling at each other, Adaline drifted by.
“You two are disgusting,” she said. “Simpering and batting your eyes at each other. Can I have your bearskin?”
Henrick was used to this question by now. “When I get it off, I’m sure Gottilf will want to keep it,” he said.
“You’re about as much fun as getting a tooth pulled,” said Adaline. “I bet this Gottilf would give it to me. He sounds like someone worth knowing. I suppose when you’ve had a bath, you’re going to come back here and you and Marlis will have a bunch of snotty, screaming babies. I can’t wait.” She went inside the house.
Marlis rolled her eyes. “And that was almost pleasant for her. I don’t understand what’s eating her – she’s been like a spitting cat for weeks.”
Henrick eventually said his good-byes and set off down the road. He enjoyed that the people he passed raised their hands in greeting and wondered what they would say when he came back this time.
“This will be the last of it,” Gottilf said.
Henrick peered down at his chest. The lump of sylphyl there was a large as an egg. Gottilf had been prizing out the tendrils that connected to it. Now he took a small sharp knife and delicately cut a slit in the skin that still held the sylphyl in place. Henrick clenched his jaw. Then Gottilf carefully lifted the sylphyl away revealing the thin spikes on its back side. A few spots of blood oozed sluggishly in the sore, red flesh underneath. Gottilf stared at the piece of sylphyl, rapt.
After a moment, Henrick asked, “Is that it?”
“What? Oh, yes. I’m done with you. You can be on your way now.” Gottilf didn’t look up from his work bench.
Not wanting to put on Marlis’ finely made gift, Henrick wrapped himself in his old cloak. He glanced back at the bearskin one more time as it lay draped over a chair beside the worktable. Then he looked back at the magician.
“I wanted to talk to you about how you’re using the sylphyl.”
Gottilf shot him a swift look. “I can’t see how that is any of your business.”
“It’s pretty nasty stuff,” Henrick persisted.
Gottilf scowled. “Henrick, our association is over. I did what you asked, more even. Now I really don’t have time to revisit all the reasons you don’t like sylphyl. Go on. I’m a busy man.” He put the sylphyl down on a disk of black marble and picked up a lens to study it.
Henrick hesitated uneasily.
“Did I not make myself clear?” Gottilf demanded, glaring at him.
Henrick left. Once outside he started to feel better. What could Gottilf do with defective sylphyl anyways?
Beyond the unnaturally chilly yard, the air outside smelled of warm summer grass. Henrick hurried down the hill. When he got to the bridge he left the path and went up the river until he found a pool. He dropped his basket and the cloak and grabbed the sheers. Uncaring of style or finesse he hacked off his beard and then grabbed hunks of dirty matted hair and chopped them away too. Then he grabbed the soap and plunged into the cold water. The relief sensation nearly made him cry with relief. He scrubbed and scrubbed with the soap and handfuls of grit from the bottom of the river until his skin was red and raw. At last he decided that he had done as much as he could with cold river water. Even though he still didn’t feel clean, he pulled on Marlis’ gift and headed toward Vist.
The guard at the gate eyed him. “What happened to you, friend?” he asked.
“It’s a long story,” said Henrick. “Can you tell me where I can get a bath and find a barber?”
He went to the barber first.
“Who savaged your hair like this?” the barber asked. “It’s like it’s been mowed with a scythe.” He clipped here and there, cutting the wild mass down to a close crop. He then shaved way the remains of the ragged beard. “Whoever you had do this, I’d suggest you don’t let them at your hair again,” was his parting advice.
Henrick paid him twice his asking price and tracked down the inn the guard had recommended. There he spent the entire afternoon soaking in hot water. When he finally emerged he was as wrinkled as a dried apple. Carefully, he redressed in the fine linen shirt, and blue vest and breaches Marlis had made him and settled his eye-patch into place.
It was instinctive to hesitate as he entered the common room, but nobody glanced twice at him. Feeling dizzy with elation, he sat beside a burly man at one of the long tables. His bench-mate glanced over, nodded in greeting and returned to his discussion of the roads farther north.
The serving boy took Henrick’s order for chicken pie and brought him a pint of ale. Henrick sat there, sipping the malty brew and grinning.
He left Vist early the next morning, striding out into the pale summer dawn. It was only midmorning however, when a horse and rider came into view on the road and he recognized Marlis. Startled, he called out. She reined in, glancing at him and then looked again.
She swung off the horse and ran to him, throwing her arms about his neck. He wrapped his own arms around her, his heart pounding. She leaned back so she could see his face. “I can’t believe it’s you!” she said, running her hands over his short hair. “Look at you.”
Henrick decided it was the moment to claim that promised kiss. He cupped the back of her head, feeling the soft strands of her hair between his fingers. As he bend to kiss her, he saw her lips curve in a dazzling smile. It was sometime before he recalled himself enough break the kiss and ask, “Marlis, what are you doing here?”
She stiffened and pulled back. “Damn – Henrick, you haven’t seen Adaline, have you?”
Marlis’ eyebrows drew together. “She disappeared shortly after you left and when I asked around someone said they saw her heading down the road to Vist. I stopped at The Wayfarer last night, and they said she had taken a room the night before and continued this way yesterday morning. Henrick, she’s been acting stranger than usual – I’m worried about her.”
“What could she want in Vist?” Henrick said.
Marlis bit her lip. “That’s the thing,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s Vist. What’s the one thing that is guaranteed to fascinate her?”
Henrick only had to think for a moment. “Magic. Anything having to do with sorcery. You think she’s gone to see Gottilf?”
Marlis nodded, her brow furrowed.
“If she went there – well it’s likely he’d just ignore her or send her packing, but if he didn’t—-”
“How far is his house?” she asked.
“Not far.” He pointed back up the road.
“Come on,” said Marlis. She pulled him toward the horse. “Socks can carry two for that long.”
As they road back toward Vist, Henrick tried to keep his mind on their errand. However, he found that having Marlis riding behind him, pressed against his back, was very distracting.
He forgot about that though when they got within sight of the manor house. Though the day was clear and sunny, a strange greenish mist clung to the house and yard. It appeared to be seeping out from the boarded over windows and under the crack in the door.
“What is that haze?” asked Marlis as she peered around him.
Henrick dismounted and held the horse so she could follow.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Do you think it might hurt us?”
Once Henrick would have been able to scan it with his enhanced eye, but now he could only draw on his memory. He approached the gate and sniffed the air. It smelt faintly damp and dank, but not noxious. He noticed a crow hopping about in the yard, pecking at the carcass of a small animal. The bones were old with dried flesh on them and the crow seemed to be a normal bird, undisturbed by the ugly mist.
“I think we’ll be safe,” he said. “Perhaps you should stay here, in case it is dangerous.”
Marlis shook her head. “If you’re going in, so am I. Besides, Adaline won’t listen to you.”
They crossed the ruined yard and knocked loudly on the door. When there was no answer, Henrick pushed it open. “The workshop’s this way,” he said. “Come on.”
Inside, the mist clung to the floor, swirling around their feet as they crossed the hall. Henrick loosened his hunting knife in its sheath and knocked on the workshop door.
“Go away!” called Gottilf through the door.
Henrick opened the door.
Adaline stood in the center of the room with Gottilf behind her. His arms wrapped around her waist to cup her hands in his. A sphere of sickly green light hovered over her hands and the greenish mist poured off of it. Her expression was both exultant and vacant. Henrick noticed, uneasily that the sylphyl was evident across Gottilf’s hands and up the sides of his neck into his hairline.
“Adaline!” Marlis pushed past Henrick. He caught her arm, stopping her.
“Go away, Marlis,” Adaline said, without looking away from the light in her hands.
“Let her go,” Marlis said to Gottilf.
He smiled at her, curling his lip over his sharp teeth.
“My dear, look at her, does she appear to be in any distress? Or being held against her will?”
“I don’t care if she’s distressed or not. We’re leaving and taking her with us!”
The light winked out and Adaline made a little sound of disappointment. “Look at what you made me do.”
Gottilf stroked her hair, and leaned close to her ear to say, “Don’t fret, my sweet, you’ll be able to do it again. Think of how far you’ve come in just one day.”
Adaline glared at Marlis. “You always spoil everything,” she said. “All these stupid rules you have and chores you make me do and people you won’t let me hex. I’m meant for much bigger things. Gottilf is going to teach me to harness my true power and become a real sorceress.”
“That’s right, my sweet.” Gottilf patted her cheek.
Henrick shuddered, remembering the cool, clammy touch of those hands on his own skin.
Marlis took a step toward Adaline. “Ady, think! Father said himself: your magic isn’t strong enough to train. I know you want to be a sorceress, but it just isn’t possible.”
“Gottilf has ways of awakening my power,” Adaline said. She smiled.
“I’ll bet he does,” Marlis said in an undertone. She glared at Gottilf. “I’m sure it’s flattering having a pretty girl like Adaline come fawn on you, but you have to let me take her home. You know she doesn’t have enough power to be a sorceress.”
“As Adaline says I have ways,” he said. “Besides, my dear, your sister is a grown woman. It’s really her decision whether or not she stays.”
“So there,” said Adaline, sticking her tongue out at Marlis. Gottilf smiled again and whispered something in Adaline’s ear. She smirked.
“Henrick?” Marlis turned to appeal to him.
“Look, Gottilf,” he began.
“No,” said Gottilf. “I’ve been patient because you were an interesting specimen. But I am done with you now. Neither of you are welcome here. Get out.”
“I’ll bring the town guard from Vist.” Marlis started toward them. Henrick eased his knife out.
“Try it now,” said Gottilf to Adaline.
Adaline pointed at Marlis. Light flashed on her fingertips and an invisible force threw Marlis back against the wall beside the door. Henrick sprang towards her, shielding her from another attack. Adaline raised her hands again. Light crackled between them. Henrick threw the knife. It struck Adaline’s shoulder and red blood welled from a deep gouge. She screamed and stumbled back. She tripped on her skirts and fell to the floor. Gottilf screamed as well. Light crackled between his palms, but unlike Adaline’s, Henrick knew that Gottilf’s power was far from weak. He grabbed Marlis who had scrambled up behind him and flung them both to the side.
A bolt of power smashed into the wall where they had been, leaving a black, smoking hole behind.
Henrick and Marlis ran up against the worktable. There was nowhere else to go: Gottilf turned toward them, the power building between his hands again. Marlis said a prayer under her breath. Henrick only half heard her. His attention cleared and narrowed to focus on Gottilf. A glance at the workbench showed him that there were few weapons available. But there was one thing that caught his eye.
The bearskin. Enchanted to absorb magic. He pulled it to him and shook it to lie skin side out just as Gottilf loosed another bolt of magic. It stuck the skin, which burst into green flames, but leaving Henrick and Marlis unharmed. Henrick threw the burning skin to the side.
Just then Gottilf gave a cry. Adaline stood behind him. Blood ran from the wound on her shoulder, but the wound had not weakened the blow she struck with Henrick’s knife. The blade slashed across Gottilf’s back. Green light flared and Adaline screamed and dropped the knife, but her attack had thrown Gottilf off balance and he fell to his knees.
“Don’t hurt my sister!” yelled Adaline. Dropping the knife, she grabbed a nearby chair and smashed it over Gottilf’s head. “She’s my sister! You don’t get to hurt her!”
Henrick could see green light oozing from the cut on Gottilf’s back as the sylphyl repaired the slash. The distraction gave him a moment to recover. He grabbed a glass beaker off the workbench and broke it against the side of the table leaving a jagged shiv in his hand.
Gottilf twisted, turning on Adaline and blue fire punched her across the room and smashed her into the wall. Marlis screamed and lunged across the floor toward her sister.
Henrick grabbing the magician’s hair and pulled him around. He struck with the sharp glass, his training directing him just so, slashing across the artery in Gottilf’s throat. Blood sprayed across the floor and Gottilf collapsed.
Henrick turned. Marlis held her scarf against the wound on Adaline’s shoulder, tears running down her face. “Henrick, she’s not breathing.”
Henrick knelt beside them. He picked up Adaline’s wrist and felt for her pulse. Her heart beat sluggishly. “Marlis,” he began.
“No!” said Marlis. She grabbed Adaline’s shoulders and shook her. “Breath, Ady! Do you hear me! Breath, damn you.”
Adaline gasped. Her eyes opened. Under Henrick’s fingers her pulse jerked and then settled into a more normal rhythm.
“Marlis?” Adaline’s voice was little more than a whisper.
“Yes, sweetie?” Tears thickened Marlis’ voice as she cupped her sister’s cheek.
“I don’t want to be a sorceress anymore. I don’t think I like magic after all.”
“That’s fine,” Marlis said. “That’s good.” She looked at Henrick. “Can we get out of here?”
Henrick put his arms under Adeline, and gathered her up, trying to be careful of her shoulder, wrapped in Marlis’ impromptu bandage. Marlis led the way out of the dirty hall.
“We’ll tell the guard in Vist,” Henrick said. “Perhaps, we should suggest they just burn the place down.”
“I wouldn’t object,” said Marlis, shuddering. Outside, she mounted the horse. Henrick handed Adelind up to her. Adelind moaned as her wound was jostled, then she turned her face into Marlis’ shoulder and lay quietly.
Henrick took the bridle of the horse and began to lead it down the track. At the base of the hill he glanced one more time at the dark silhouette of the house against the evening sky. Perhaps he would come burn it himself. Even the scraps of magic the Empire had left behind were dangerous. He was happy to be done with it himself. He turned his face toward the distant town, ready to rejoin the world.
Joanna Friedman lives with her husband and twin girls in the San Francisco, CA bay area. She has been a writer for as long as she can remember and for the past two years has written the stories that have previously existed only inside her head. She works as a psychologist and spends all of her free time with her family and dog, Blue.
BLUE VELVET DRESS
Nate, I liked how you came over on Saturday night without first calling. You said, before you'd even handed me the bottle of wine, the neighborhood wasn't close enough to the beach. You were probably right about the neighborhood. I took the bottle, even though I don't drink. There were students barbecuing out on the lawn and I told you that sometimes it's nice to go out there with them. You told me I was smarter and would be better off spending my time finishing my thesis, getting my name out there. You told me when I do publish I should change my name from Lucy Franks to Lauren Blue. I kind of liked the idea, you have a good feel for names, but the name Lauren gave you a far-away look and so I settled on Lucy Blue. As for getting published, I doubted that would happen. Still, you made me feel like it could be true and so I wanted to work harder, so you would keep saying those sorts of things.
You pointed out my neighbor's door was open. The neighbor had moved out that morning. He couldn't pay his rent and I'd helped him put three boxes and a television in his car. He must have forgotten to close the door. You asked if there was any stuff - like pill bottles - left behind and I said I didn't know, drugs and alcohol weren't my thing. You shook your head in disbelief.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Your dishonesty," you said.
"Are you saying I'm lying?"
"Everyone's got their drug," you said.
"I don't like to put anything in my body. It makes me feel depressed and... "
"I brought you a song," you said and put it on, but not before you complained about my speakers. I needed to get better ones, you said. How were we supposed to listen to any music with these? The song you were playing - about loving someone just for one night - came through just the same.
"One night?" I asked.
"It's just a song."
I told you I liked the melody. You opened the bottle and poured yourself a glass.
"Why don't you put on something nice?" You kept looking at me and when I looked down at the daisy print dress I'd chosen it seemed you were right.
I went in the bathroom to put on the knee length blue velvet dress, the one which showed off my cleavage. I added strappy high heels. When I came out you whistled and said I looked beautiful but my hair was too curly and I should brush it out. Then you mumbled something about girls looking sloppy when they don't wear nail polish on their toes.
I went back in and straightened my hair. Then I remembered how you told me Paula, your ex-girlfriend, was someone who should wear make-up. In the back of a drawer there were make-up samples I'd gotten with a bottle of cream. The pink lipstick made my lips look like they belonged in an ad and the dark blue eye shadow - which I applied a little darker than usual- made me feel like the sophisticated girl you told me you'd love to meet one day. This time when I came out you softened your eyes and said I looked just right for a night out with you. My toes felt naked.
I wanted to sit in your lap and kiss you but instead I said, "You look really great too."
You finished your wine and said you didn't feel right about the evening because I loved Mikey, your brother, and your ex-girlfriend, Paula, was my best friend.
"Paula and I aren't that close," I said.
You stood next to the window and looked out.
"What about Mikey?" You asked.
"How could I love someone like that," I said. You cringed, I assumed because it was your younger brother and you knew about his problems.
It wouldn't have been any better if I told you the whole truth about me and Mikey. Told you about all the afternoons we came home after eating out. I always paid because Mikey said he had ten dollars in the bank. We read on my bed or made love- one or the other. Then we told teach other stories. He liked to tell me about the apartment we'd get by the ocean and I added details.
"It has to have dark blue walls," I told him once.
"We'll read books all day, like this one." He'd hold up the book of the moment. The heroine in the story reminded him of me. At some point he would go to the kitchen, get himself a beer, and a bowl of blueberries. He'd sip the beer while feeding me the berries with his other hand.
"I love the way you look when you eat these," he'd say.
One day I kissed past his blueberry-stained fingers and along his arms, down to where I noticed the burns and cuts. He told me he'd shot heroin a few times and that it had made him a little crazy. I stopped kissing him. He held my hand and in a hoarse choked voice he told me he wanted to tell me the story about the apartment again, but this time when he told it, I pictured running out onto the sand and into cold ocean. I told Mikey to go home.
"Is it because of the heroin?" he asked.
"Yes," I lied.
It was easier than telling Mikey that it was because I couldn't risk his dying and leaving me alone.
"Let's stop talking about Mikey," you said.
You took my hand, pulled it behind my back, pushed me against the wall, smelled my hair, and told me I was the body you'd been waiting for. A body you deserve to have, you said, and for a moment I loved my body too.
"Let's go," you said. "Let's get out into the night."
You drove, fast, toward the club. You said this was your kind of club, as girls with red strappy dresses exited and guys threw money toward the valets. We stepped inside. You steered me through the white curtains hung at the entrance, and toward a group of dancing bodies. We fell into a rhythm and with you I was a good dancer.
You stepped behind me, lifted my arms high into the air and like a shooting star, you moved your hand down, down into my dress where I felt you close to my heart. I didn't even care that everyone could see. Our hips moved in time.
"I feel like we're in a movie." I said, but you couldn't hear me through the pounding music.
Later the bartender told me I was a good dancer. I heard a girl with high heels, nail polish on her toes, and a belly button ring ask you if you would dance with her. You asked me if that would be alright and I shrugged. "She has some stuff," you told me. I saw her wave you into the bathroom and I sat near the bartender.
"What's your name?" the bartender asked.
"Lucy... lucky Lucy... lovely," he said. "What's your drink?"
"I don't drink."
"Everyone has a drink."
He put a red umbrella in it before setting it down in front of me.
I chewed on the ice cubes and watched the bathroom door. Eventually you came out with the girl, hands around her waist, you pushed her into the crowd. The ice crunching sounded louder than the music, still I could see you Nate. Your hands around her hips, your face in her hair. I chewed cold ice and watched until she stumbled and you left her on the dance floor.
"Why'd you have to go and dance with someone else?" I said.
"She wasn't as good as you."
You ordered a shot of tequila.
"I love you, Nate."
You sat quietly.
"Why aren't you saying anything?"
"I'm waiting for the right moment... you know... I've never said it to anyone," you said.
That made me feel a little special, like you'd told me a secret about yourself. At least you trusted me. I asked you if you thought you'd ever say those words to me and you told me you'd tell me when it was time. You finished your drink and we walked back to the car.
You kissed me against the passenger side. I said it felt really good and kissed you back. Then you paused, said you missed your ex-girlfriend. I felt annoyed because I didn't want to hear about her and it made me miss your brother. I turned away until you pulled me back and started kissing my breasts. It made us both feel better for a moment until a guy slammed his fist on the trunk of your car and told us to move so he could park. I had to pull my dress up quickly but not before he got a glimpse and gave me a knowing smile. I rushed to get in the car.
You were unsteady getting in and then you fumbled to put the keys in the ignition. I offered to drive and you handed me the keys. You shut your eyes during the drive back to your apartment and I stared ahead because I didn't want you to know the empty hollow spot was starting to grow with the anticipation of ending the night.
"Can I stay with you?" I asked.
You didn't answer at first and I thought maybe you'd fallen asleep. Then you said something about how you didn't want to ruin the magic of the evening.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Hearing your lover brushing her teeth in the morning ruins just about everything."
"I didn't bring my toothbrush," I said and you nodded with a smile.
When we pulled into your driveway you yawned and then kissed me on the lips. You told me I had the perfect body for fucking. I blushed and told you we could if you wanted to. You opened my door and lifted me up and out of the car. Then you kissed me all the way into your apartment.
We walked in and you lit candles. You poured us each a glass of wine. You smirked when I pushed my glass back toward you. You leaned over and started kissing my neck and I didn't care about the red mark that would be there tomorrow. The phone rang and the answering machine came on. It was Paula's voice asking you where you'd been. She thought the two of you had a date tonight.
I pulled away and asked why she thought that. You told me she was confused. I had to go to the bathroom. I peed as quietly as I possibly could. I cried and decided it would be better to leave. Except, once I decided that, the cold empty feeling crept in.
"I'm thinking of leaving,"
You held my hand and pulled down the strap of my dress. The empty feeling dissolved with each kiss on my shoulder.
"You want to stay, don't you?" You pulled down the other strap and I felt the emptiness fill with your movement.
"I don't want to leave."
We fucked that night to the sound of the - one night - love song you'd brought me and Paula calling every hour or two. First she seemed concerned, then angry, then drunk, her voice changing shades over the course of the night. You moaned about my body being perfect and I came knowing that for a moment I was worth loving. You fell asleep and with your eyes closed you said, "I love you, Lauren Blue."
When I asked in the morning about it, you said you didn't remember saying that. When I told you I'd heard it, you said you were talking in your sleep. Still you said it, I reminded you, you said you loved me. You smiled as you let me out the door and told me I was beautiful and we were good together, and if there was poetry to be written, it would be written all about this night.
Back in my apartment the quiet buzzed in my ears. I drew the shades and looked for a message on my phone. The emptiness almost had a hold until I smelled your cologne on my arm. For a moment, the dizziness filled me with calm. I checked for a message, again. Normally people shower in the morning, but I didn't, Nate. I didn't want to wash off the smell of us. I didn't brush my teeth either. I sat on the couch in the blue velvet dress, looked at my strappy shoes, and waited for you. Waited with a faint smile, a dim glow remembering how we moved. I wanted you to pick me again, for another night. In the stillness, I pretend - smoked a cigarette and then another until the dam cracked. I knew my body wasn't worth a dime and all I wanted was another whisper from you asking if I wanted to fuck.
I called you and got your answering machine instead. I left a message that I'd had a good time and could we please go out for breakfast? I tapped my foot for twenty minutes before I called Paula. I couldn't have breakfast alone and I was hungry. She said she was busy and that she'd been hoping to get together with you last night. She was mad that you had forgotten about the date and that she had agreed to see you this morning. She'd tell me about it sometime soon.
I hung up and dialed Mikey's number.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey Lucy," Mikey said back.
"What are you doing?"
"Waiting here for you," Mikey said.
"Want me to come over?"
"Could we eat first?" He sounded like he hadn't eaten for awhile.
"Yeah, I'm hungry."
I stood up and smoothed out the wrinkles in my dress. It was as good - better than - it had been last night. Mikey wouldn't know the difference. I stepped out into the morning. The clouds were thick and heavy, the air was still, like the wind wasn't quite ready to blow. The drive to Mikey's felt long. I turned around once, drove away, but eventually I pulled into his driveway. He was standing in his doorway. Big smile on his face. His hair color the same dark brown as yours. He walked over to the car and leaned in to kiss me through the window.
"God... I love you Lucy..." he opened the car door and tried to pull me into a hug but I was still buckled in. He sat down on my lap instead. I wanted him to kiss me, put his hand up my shirt, anything to make me forget you, but he put his head on my shoulder and shook a little. I put my arms around him and felt my shoulder turn wet.
"Hey Mikey, you're kind of hurting my legs."
He moved onto the passenger seat and patted my leg.
"Don't ever want to hurt you."
I started the car and drove to the diner, the one next to the truck stop. The one with the neon lights in the window. It started to rain. Mikey ordered eggs, waffles, a tuna fish sandwich, and black coffee. I ordered a decaf tea.
"You're so healthy Lucy... and you look amazing... doesn't matter if your make-up is a little..." He made a motion with his fingers around his own lips. "Looks beautiful anyway, doesn't matter," he said.
I hadn't looked in the mirror since last night. I got up from the table and went to the bathroom. The lipstick was smeared past my lips, mascara was smudged under my eyes, my hair was frizzing into curls, and I had a red mark on my neck. I looked in my purse for something to help me - nothing but some change in my wallet.
I wondered what you and Paula were doing. You probably wouldn't like it much that I'd called Mikey, just as much as I didn't like Paula coming over to your place. You could have shut off that answering machine Nate- you could have, you know?
The soap in the dispenser smelled like cleaning fluid but it washed you away. The blue of my eyes still came through without the mascara. There was a machine for the lady truckers. I put the coins in for the hair brush - it came with hair bands on the handle, toothbrush, and toilettes. I left the lipstick, tampons, and condoms. I brushed out my hair - still frizzy - but once up in a pony tail, it looked alright, even to me. I brushed my teeth so hard Nate, that when I spit into the sink I did it out loud just the way kids do when they are first learning. That's how I brushed my teeth, Nate, and you know what? They were clean when I was done with them. I looked all right. I opened the door back to the diner.
I used the public phone and called your cell phone, got your voice mail. I wanted you to hear all this, hear my "poetry" about the night. When it got to the end and the automatic voice of a woman came on and asked if I was satisfied with my message I yelled into the phone, that I wasn't satisfied with my message and hung up.
Mikey finished the tuna fish sandwich. It had begun to rain- heavy sheets of rain that turned the outside dark grey. I could barely see the car.
He looked up, "Lucy, you look so beautiful, not like other girls who need all that make up."
"Mikey, I look alright, okay? Listen, I have to go." His smile started to fade.
"Here's twenty bucks for the food and cab home. I'm sorry for everything."
Mikey started crying again and I told him that things would get better for us both. Then I walked outside. The rain pounded on my arms and legs, within one second I was soaking wet but it was all right because these types of rain storms last for only a few minutes. A few minutes of intense soaking rain, then just as quickly the sun appears and it makes it seem like the rain storm never happened in the first place.